Carolyn Hax: She wants to see other men. What does that really mean?

Carolyn Hax
Columnist June 8, 2012

Dear Carolyn:

My girlfriend of five years recently gave me the dreaded “I want to see other people” line. Talking to my friends, most agree that it means, “I’m already seeing someone else, or have one in mind.”

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I never fooled around on her but was accused of it several times. My experience over the years is that the one accusing the innocent party is usually the one fooling around; you know, the best defense is a good offense. She was going to college and was struggling with classes and spent many weekends “studying.” I was never anything but supportive of her and her endeavors, always encouraging her and never in any way held her back.

She has low self-esteem and says her ex-husband was abusive — mentally, not physically. She always compares herself to other women and always she sees herself coming up short, and I always had to boost her ego.

So what do your readers think about this whole thing? Is “seeing other people” code for “I already am”? And is the accuser always the one doing wrong?


Michigan

Even if it were some kind of code, it wouldn’t guarantee that she was adhering to it.

I also don’t see why it matters, except as a health issue and a where-to-file-this-experience issue. Even taking her words at face value, you’re looking at a relationship that’s pretty much over whether she’s seeing others or not, whether she’s been doing that all along or not, whether there’s some other accuser-perpetrator subtext or not.

Formulating theories like yours, and inviting your friends to rally behind them with you, actually fits your “best defense is a good offense” diagnosis quite well. You’re seeing the end of a five-year love, you’re hurting, and you’re lashing out.

Don’t. Here’s the narrative I suggest to replace it: You’re just two people who tried to make your unique combination of strengths, weaknesses, insecurities, histories and hopes fit together — and in the end, they didn’t.

Releasing blame doesn’t seem at first to be as satisfying as pointing fingers, but ultimately it’s more so. Anger gives the impression that something could have been/should be fixed, which is inherently open-ended and unsatisfying, where “It wasn’t meant to be” is inherently accepting. And final.

There is one generalization here that I do think applies to you in a meaningful way: Once a couple gets into the loop where one half is continually self-flagellating and the other is continually cheerleading, there’s very little chance they’ll develop a healthy relationship. Not unless the one with low self-esteem recognizes that (1) outside validation isn’t going to fill emotional holes; and (2) only hard work will, starting with the admission that s/he has these gaps to reckon with.

But that’s for her to work out now. Chances are she’ll opt instead to get into the same loop with one of those proverbial someone elses, since new romance feels a lot better than digging into old wounds — though it’s always possible this is the breakup that motivates her to change.

Maybe it’ll be the same for you. Your part, then and now, is to figure out how you got into the, “No, really, Dear, you’re beautiful/wonderful/perfect for me,” habit despite the no-doubt-abundant evidence that these patches never stick.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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