Thursday, November 14, 2019

Obsessed with Her Nemesis

New York Magazine advice columnist Ask Polly finds this situation intriguing. So do I. Polly asks some relevant and pertinent questions. I applaud her for doing so.

A letter writer is a married mother of two. with a secret obsession. She obsesses over her husband’s previous lover, a woman he had dated more than 15 years ago. She calls the other woman her nemesis. She follows her every movement. She competes with her. She judges her many successes against those of her nemesis. 

As Polly notes, the woman writes well. She expresses herself clearly and concisely. And yet, surely something is wrong. We do not, Polly notes, have enough information to see what it is, because the letter writer does not tell us anything about her life. In itself, that must be a clue.

Anyway, the letter writer, who dubs herself Nemesis Anonymous, has what anyone would consider the perfect life:

I’ve been with my husband for 13 years. We met when I was quite young, and I have to say, without tooting my horn, that we’re pretty happy. We have two sweet (but often annoying) kids, we both run interesting (but often challenging) businesses, and we have lived in four different countries together. He’s a seriously amazing co-parent, cooks like a professional chef, and only sometimes feels the need to lecture me about my inability to put the lid on the toothpaste. We fight now and again, but we’ve worked out how to do that without going nuclear. All in all, pretty great.

We interrupt the proceedings to point out that it all depends on what she means by pretty great. She has a perfectly egalitarian marriage, though, strangely she often finds her children to be annoying. We suspect that all of the business success she has enjoyed does not numb her to feelings that she is failing as a wife and a mother. 

She continues:

This letter is about him, but not really. A few years into our relationship, on a night out, one of his friends told me at length about a woman my husband had dated for a few years. I got all the gossip, the usual stuff around the fact that this particular friend disliked her and was happy to see the back of her when they broke up. Rightly or wrongly, it’s the sort of stuff you like hearing about your partner’s ex.

Most people might have just forgotten about it, but I’ve always had an unhealthy interest in my partner’s exes. So obviously, I committed it to memory and when I had some downtime at work went into deep internet sleuth mode and found her online. It turns out she was running a business at the time, which she wrote about in detail online. She has a know-it-all tone that sucked me in, if only in a train-crash type of way. I couldn’t help but tune in every day to find out what she was doing. It became almost like a tic that happened when I was bored.

This was back in the early days of the internet, and seeing what she was doing inspired me to spend a bit of time on my own passion. I launched a business that was in line with my interests and values, but ultimately I can admit that it was what she was doing that inspired it. Turns out, I was good at it, and after a short time I left my corporate job to work on it full time. I’ve had recognizable success in my field, and I’ve been doing this for over a decade. Three books, a podcast, hundreds of thousands of followers later, I’ve been staying completely abreast of what she’s been up to all the while: her breakups, her business ventures, her kids, the inability she has to just commit to one thing. I know it all, and have also spent a decent amount of time reading between the lines of her various blogs, tweets, and posts.

It might sound insane, but I think all the while I have been watching her, she has also been watching me. Often I would see a reflection of what I had done in her work, or a pointed jab made to something I had published or worked on in her posts. Recently, she started a business based on an idea that I had originally launched, in a similar format and tone and using the same contributors and tagline. And in case you think I’m just nuts, she also continually blocks and unblocks me on social media. Her life has been playing out in real time (as has mine) and it’s the ultimate form of reality TV. Bad and kind of boring but you can’t look away.

And you know what? It’s got absolutely nothing to do with my husband. He barely registers in this situation, and (before you say it) I don’t feel romantically threatened by her, or anyone. When I brought her up with him a few years ago (or any time since), he barely remembers her. It’s like she was a tiny blip on his radar, whereas for me she has shaped my whole existence. Albeit from afar.

She has become, without a doubt, my nemesis. On days she is doing great, I feel a little worse, and on days life seems to suck for her, I feel better. If she tweets something amazing and people love it, I feel empty inside. If she’s quiet for a few months, I gloat that maybe she’s struggling (although, as we now know, being offline is the biggest luxury of all). Sane me tries to remind myself that one of us doesn’t have to fail for the other to succeed, but the other, more Schadenfreude-ian part thinks that in life there are winners, and there are losers. But can’t we both be winners?

Recently my husband and I decided to move back to the West Coast to spend more time with my family (my father has a degenerative illness). Chances are we’ll end up living in some sort of close proximity to this woman. And although proximity doesn’t make much of a difference (I stay up to date on her no matter where I am), it does make me think that maybe it’s time to kick this habit. In some ways it feels so toxic to tune into this woman’s life, to watch her and also feel watched by her. But on the other hand, what she does encourages me to do better. When she does really well, I first feel jealousy, and then I work a little harder and vow to get a little better. In many ways she’s the competition I need to do what I do well. I freely admit that without her influence, I may have stalled and may not have created a business that not only gives me money but also flexibility and freedom. That said, perhaps I’ve been lazy in choosing my nemesis, given that she’s not exactly changing the world … Maybe I need a new one?

As for the fulness of her life, here goes:

When I spend time with friends, I realize that I have more interests than most women — I do yoga, run daily, read a wide range of news, and sing in my spare time. (My other hobby is general existential dread about climate change and the fate of the planet, but that’s for another time.)

I guess what I’m asking, Polly, is whether or not you think this is an addiction that’s ruining my life. Should I try my hardest to give it up? What would life look like without my daily check-ins? Do I need to go on some sort of 12-step program? Or is it normal and kinda good to have a nemesis that encourages you to do better?

Looking back, part of me wants to thank her for sending me down a path I love, but the other part knows that maybe it’s time to let it go. But how?

Nemesis Anonymous

It depends on what she means about being motivated to do better. Better in business, better at parenting, a better wife. 

Polly identifies a yawning hole in the letter. NA has failed to describe her relationships with any other human beings. She has precious little to say about her husband or her children. They feel like shadows, afterthoughts. :

I looked for clues about your relationship with your husband and your friends and yourself, and I found very little there. I tried to find impressions of how this obsession is affecting you emotionally — hurting you or distracting you or possessing you — and I found nothing. Aside from how it started, your situation boils down to the kinds of rotating professional rivalries most writers and creative people flirt with but never completely succumb to: She’s doing well, you feel worse. She’s doing badly, you feel better. There’s this notion (common, as far as I can tell, among those with nemeses) that less for her means more for you, as if attention and success are scarce resources.

As for whether it’s time to let go of her nemesis and to get into her life, the answer is clearly yes. The lack of specific information, motivated by the wish to hide all identifying details, suggests that she is sacrificing the little things that make for a life interesting in favor of a fictionalized obsession with her doppelganger. Does the word narcissism pop into mind?

What is the problem? As Polly puts it, NA cannot feel her success. How is it possible that she is doing everything right and she feels like she isn’t? Not to be too simple minded, but perhaps she is not doing right by her husband. Perhaps she is not doing right by her children. Polly notes astutely that the woman’s husband does not know about her nemesis. At that point, what is her marriage really about?

Perhaps she is doing everything right according to a game plan defined by contemporary culture. What if the plan is skewed… against women?

I believe that what you really want to know is why you can’t feel your success. I think you’re wondering if there’s more to life than this. Maybe you need a new nemesis, which is just another way of saying maybe you need another way to feel your way forward, toward a new goal or a new life that might fulfill you more than this one does. You’re doing everything right. So why does everything feel so empty?

I guess I have to leave behind the question of what your relationship with your husband is like, or why you’re still a little fixated on being better than other people, but my guess is that there’s a lot of fear hiding just beneath the surface of everything you do. You’ve had some incredible success — which is excellent and deserved because you’ve worked hard and you’re obviously smart and you don’t let yourself get tripped up on bullshit very often. But for all of that success, you’re running a very tight ship emotionally. And honestly, I don’t know what the point of marriage is if your spouse doesn’t even know what you’re obsessed with, day after day. 

So, Polly recommends that the woman give up her nemesis, perhaps to replace her with a mentor. I heartily agree with her point, namely that replacing a bad habit with a good habit is far more constructive and even more effective than trying to go cold turkey. 

As for the larger question, why has NA become obsessed with the nemesis? How healthy is it for women to compete with other women? Or better, if men define their manliness in competition with other men, can women do as much, defining themselves in comparison to other women rather than in terms of their relationships with men?

In large part, NA is trying out the feminist position, which is, not to allow herself to be defined as wife or mother, but as an autonomous, independent self-actualized person. I would say, from the evidence of her letter, that it is not working out too well. She is using her nemesis as an excuse for not fulfilling her duties as wife and mother. For that, she feels a failure. Having a nemesis is a symptom of the problem. It has certainly not solved the problem.

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