The Cut’s advice columnist Heather Havrilesky answers readers’ questions about how to be in the world. Got a question for Polly? Email [email protected].
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First off, thank you for your utter candor and wisdom. Your column has helped me through many challenging times, and I appreciate how you make me feel okay to eat pie in my pajamas at 3 p.m. on a weekday. Second off, I hate my future brother-in-law and his wife. They’re assholes.
When I first started dating my boyfriend two years ago, I met his brother about six months into the relationship. It was over dinner while he was in town for work (we don’t live in the same city, thank sweet baby Jesus), and while I proceeded to ask him questions and attempted to engage with him, he couldn’t bring himself to ask me anything or even feign interest in getting to know me. Every time I left space open in the conversation for him to start a new topic or give him the opportunity to ask me something, silence followed. To my bewilderment, he texted my boyfriend after dinner with something along the lines of how great it was to meet me and what a great time he had. I wonder if we attended the same dinner.
I thought his wife would soften the edges around the relationship, but she only made it worse. I met her a few weeks later during a weekend at my boyfriend’s parents’ beach house with a group of friends. The first time she saw me, she made none of the usual pleasantries. She didn’t say it was nice to meet me, she didn’t approach me to hug or shake my hand. She just smiled at me. I ended up approaching her and made all of the above aforementioned pleasantries. She is an impossibly bubbly person who I find, quite frankly, to be a fake-ass bitch. The four of us went to dinner and she spent the entire time talking about herself with her body and eyes turned away from me, even though she was sitting directly across from me. One time she was coming into our part of town and I texted her to see if she wanted to grab lunch. She didn’t respond. It was only after my boyfriend said something to his brother that she then proceeded to be obsequiously nice to me to the point where I felt embarrassed for her because it was clear she had been called out and was overcompensating with an incessant string of texts.
I don’t understand what their issue is with me. I wish I could say the relationship has improved, but it has not. They invite us on group trips, and we see them regularly at their parents’ house. My boyfriend has been incredibly supportive and is in agreement that they are self-centered and have not treated me well. He has gone as far as discussing with his brother how he and his wife need to do better since we are getting engaged at the end of this year. However, I feel an immense amount of anger towards them that I am not sure can be mitigated. I have tried my best to be open-minded and get to know both of them, but they continuously disappoint me. They are hypercompetitive people who seem to derive joy only from keeping up appearances without true regard for what anyone else is going through. The only times that my future brother-in-law will talk to me is when he wants to glean information about certain work-related matters that I understand. Recently, after I wished her a happy birthday, my future sister-in-law took a week to respond to me via text. My boyfriend is fairly close with his brother, and he has stated that he would like to remain so even if the situation between us doesn’t improve. I need to respect this, but quite frankly, I wish my future brother-in-law and his wife would just drive off a cliff.
They are about to have their first child, and I have told my boyfriend that once they do have the child, I would like to wait two weeks before we go see them as I have a lot of anxiety about COVID-19 and the possibility of them contracting it while they are in the hospital. My pandemic precautions have been extreme, so this is not out of character for me. My boyfriend has said that two weeks is a long time to wait before seeing his brother’s first child and that he needs to think about it. If he goes without me, I will need to quarantine away from him for two weeks once he gets back, and then at some point, I will need to go up with him again to see this baby because I’m supposed to care. Why should I care, though? Why should I care that these people who do not give two fucks about me procreated? I know I need to do this and fake nice for the rest of my life in order to keep the peace, but the rest of my life is a very long time, and I am already very tired of being angry.
How do I find the grace and inner peace I need in order to spend the rest of my life with my wonderful boyfriend who comes with this set of asshole siblings?
Angry Future Sister-in-Law
You aren’t necessarily describing assholes. You’re describing people who don’t know how to act, or who are slightly afraid of you or a little apprehensive about being stuck in the same family with you forever and ever. You’re describing people who feel just as trapped as you do into being around someone who isn’t their exact type of person.
In other words, you’re all in the same boat. You say you hate them, which is a strong word to use, considering that you don’t know them at all yet. You’d probably say, “That’s their fault!” but the inciting injury is hardly relevant now — and in this case, the inciting “attack” was mostly just a lack of curiosity on the part of your future brother-in-law. How many men ramble through this world, utterly incurious about women, even when those women are about to be engaged to their brothers? This world is packed to the gills with incurious men. It seems ever so slightly unrealistic to lay all of the blame for an entire culture dominated by incurious men at your future brother-in-law’s feet.
So he fucked up. But then you had a very bad attitude going into meeting the future brother-in-law’s wife. That energy set the tone. Maybe your brother-in-law helped to fuck that up, too, by telling his wife things about you in advance that were formed mostly from his own fear and insecurity and worries that he’d messed up your initial interaction.
No real surprise that his wife would appear and immediately disappoint. There was a lot of bad energy in the air by then! So she (1) hung back instead of introducing herself, (2) ignored you over dinner, (3) didn’t agree to have lunch and avoided the question entirely, (4) tried to make up for ignoring your lunch invite by kissing your ass, and (5) took a week to respond to your next text. What I glean from all of these choices is that your future sister-in-law had a sense from the very start that the two of you wouldn’t get along (this intuition was accurate!), so she got all locked up whenever you were around, avoided you, tried to fix it, and just generally felt doomed to fuck everything up every step of the way.
Even if she didn’t have any advance warning that there was a problem, she still would’ve picked up on your dislike and distrust the second you met her. People always know when you’re conflicted. You knew that she was conflicted, and she knew that you were conflicted. The only way she could see to save that dinner together was to perform the part of the enthusiastic storyteller.
Your future sister-in-law is a performer. Don’t immediately confuse a performer with a fake-ass bitch, though. I guarantee you that once you get to know her, you’ll discover that she’s intuitive, insightful, and highly emotionally sensitive. And by the way, she has to be all of those things in order to understand that her husband is a perfectly nice guy underneath his complete inability to behave like a regular person and ask simple questions and think about someone other than himself. This woman is holding that man together, and he loves her for it.
Lots of women who get categorized as fake-ass bitches are actually just very sensitive, emotional beings who’ve learned to take all of their excess nerves and dread and channel them into a smooth performance of blustery self-confidence. But women who are secretly sensitive and who don’t trust other women (particularly when they’re likely to be TRAPPED in relationships with those women) behave in extremely avoidant ways because they’re all jammed up over how to connect genuinely when they sense that someone already dislikes them. Meanwhile, you probably present yourself as straightforward, confident, and polite in your own mind, but to this woman, I guarantee you come across as confrontational and unforgiving of bullshit. That doesn’t mean you’re bad any more than your sister-in-law’s apparent fakeness and subsequent evasion means that she’s bad. You two just happen to have very different styles of interacting with new people. You’re both insecure and apprehensive about being forced into a relationship with each other. And you’re both avoidant people.
How can I tell? Because you already hate her. Textbook avoidant, to meet someone new, briefly try to win them over, feel insecure about how they react, and then move away and label them BAD. I do this all the time, because I’m an insecure little freak who hates feeling awkward or uncomfortable, and because I’m very good at calling other people BAD in new and exciting ways — that’s part of my self-soothing performance.
I know that humbling myself so much that I’m even lower than you, the person with the problem, is almost like my shtick now, but I want you to trust that I’m sincere in my efforts here. Yesterday, I swear, I could not find a single Ask Polly letter I wanted to answer. They were all so sad and I had nothing to share. And then this morning at 5 a.m., there was your letter, flashing away on my phone, next to my bed.
Your underlying shame was the perfect match for me, because I’ve been in a fucking shame spiral over what an avoidant person I am this week. By shame spiral, I mean I have been SPINNING OUT and also TRIPPING OUT over how broken I am lately. Part of this is just the inevitable processing of trauma I’ve been through lately; the emotional check arrives eventually and someone has to pay it. But the other part of it is that when I have a severe negative reaction out in the world, I don’t tell stories about how bad other people are anymore. I might start there (HEY HUSBAND, SOMEBODY IS BEING A DICK, LET ME EXPLAIN THEM TO YOU IN DETAIL!), but I work my way toward my own weaknesses and allergies from there. Because that’s how you grow, motherfuckers.
It sucks, though. Make no mistake about it. It flat out hurts to discover exactly how avoidant and weird and insecure you are when you’re as old as I am. This is mostly my fault, because I put off this reckoning too long — I wanted to be a smug pig in shit, telling bad stories about other people instead. That felt safe! That was the most fun! That was my comfort zone, kind of like turning your body away from anyone who isn’t part of your rapt audience over dinner and then paying for it later.
But the inciting injury hardly matters here. What matters is WHERE I AM NOW. And here’s the big, big weakness I’ve discovered this week: I’m so avoidant that when I love something, I run away from it.
OUCH OUCH OUCH, OWWWWWW!
Here are some examples of people whom I’ve backed away from, at various times in my life, because I love them so much that it hurts: my husband, my kids, my mother, my oldest friends, my newest friends, myself. Yeah. Like that. I habitually avoid the people I care about the most in favor of imaginary dreamworlds of meaning and feeling.
Okay, so sure, whatever, I’m a writer. Let’s not get too punishing about my passions! I love what I do! If I can’t escape into dreamworlds of meaning and feeling, I get very, very bored in the real world. I need a lot. I require wild, untamed, unpredictable injections of vivid color right into the middle of my life. Because look, otherwise we’ll end up sitting around talking about that one episode of The Office that’s hilarious. Literally this is how people talk. They are so dull. Fuck people forever.
See where that landed? Everything lands there with me, when I’m feeling weak: Fuck people forever. I hate people. Down with weakness and down with the people who made me feel weak in the first place.
In other words, I relate to every single word you wrote. I would’ve reacted the exact same way you did when I was slightly younger. I hated men who didn’t ask questions and I didn’t trust fake-ass bitches, either (even though other people often saw me as one). I was suspicious of everyone, and I had really good stories to tell about What Was Wrong With People. I still do! I love my stories! It’s so hard to give them up, honestly. I’m going to have to start writing fiction for real, just so I never have to give them up.
The point is, I love you and your rage. I love your prickly confrontational nature. I love how much you hate fakeness and women who trust men more than women. You are also used to getting attention, though, aren’t you? You’re also sensitive and intuitive. You’re incredibly avoidant, too. Why?
Probably because you were raised by avoidant parents, and also because IT’S A LOT. Being in love and meeting your future husband’s family and getting engaged is a hell of a lot. No one talks about how HARD it actually is to do these things, when you’re also avoidant. IT IS SO FUCKING HARD! (This is what the book I’m writing right now, about marriage, keeps circling back to: the vulnerability of continuing to show up and love someone you also depend on can feel like too much to bear.)
But beyond that, the whole world is a lot. In the middle of this COVID shitstorm, it’s ESPECIALLY a lot. Can you feel yourself getting more vulnerable AND more avoidant at the same time? I CAN. I think a lot of us are going there. We are controlling and high strung and worried and we’re also needy and judgy and scared and weak. It’s hard, man.
This is my best advice for you: You and your future sister-in-law are not so different. Stop judging her and take the risk of trying to understand her. Do not send her messages through your fiancé. Approach her directly and wish her the best with her upcoming birth. Keep opening your heart to her, in spite of how sloppily she’s handled things. You have not been perfect, either. Imagine how you appear to her. Imagine how scary and intimidating you probably seem. Put yourself in her shoes.
You both feel trapped. I will bet you $50 right now that in ten years you’ll be good friends. YOW! TAKE THAT! Because she’s not as fucked up as she looks from a distance, and you are WAY more fucked up than you realize. Once you pry open your mind to these realities, you’ll feel better. Your growth and happiness depend on it.
As far as the birth goes, I doubt they want your brother there immediately afterward. He should ask them what they’d prefer, knowing that it’s in their nature to try to give the “right” answer (but they will still bungle it completely, since that’s also in their nature). Everyone needs to make their own choices about COVID and forcing other people to do things they’re not comfortable doing is a very bad call under any circumstances. So try to be patient with your partner while also being true to yourself.
That visit isn’t what matters. What matters a lot is that you and your fiancé radically alter your attitude and approach to dealing with his family. Because this is the tip of the iceberg, baby. You’re in for a long, long road with these people. I fully understand the revulsion inherent to that commitment — NOT TO MENTION THE REVULSION INHERENT TO GETTING MARRIED! I MEAN HOW AND WHY DO WE DO THIS TO OURSELVES? But you have to put on your big-girl pants and open your heart and play the adult here.
The best way I know to play an adult is to admit that I’m a little pants-wetting baby underneath it all. I am afraid of the people I love the most. I’m afraid of loving anyone in a real way forever and ever. I’m afraid of showing up and feeling weak and continuing to love someone in spite of that weakness. I’m afraid of looking closely at all of my countless, gigantic, enormous flaws and loving myself anyway.
Look at who you are and where you are. You feel incredibly vulnerable right now. You are emotionally overwhelmed, by everything. Be here. Feel it. I know it’s hard. Everything is extremely fucking hard right now. It just is. It’s hard on everyone. Feel that until your heart starts to open. Then give up your story and go to these people empty handed, unprotected, vulnerable, and show them who you really are. Put down your shield, lie down on the ground, and admit how much you care.
Ask Polly is moving to an every other Wednesday schedule, but there’s a new, free Ask Polly newsletter to fill in the gaps; please sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here. Her advice column will appear here every other Wednesday.
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