Warning signs

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, NOV 12, 2003

I’m in love with her, she’s in love with him, and I feel like a confused, heartbroken sucker.


Dear Cary,

A few months ago, I had a one-night stand with a co-worker. She had recently been seeing another co-worker who broke her heart because he used her as a sport fuck. But she was in love with him.

After our first encounter, we agreed that our thing was a mistake and we decided to not let it happen again. But it happened again, and again. We saw each other for a couple of months. Then one night, after I had grown tired of keeping our relationship a secret, she tells me that she slept with her ex (our co-worker) while she was seeing me. I confronted him about using her again and I freaked out on her for letting herself get used. Our relationship ended, but we remained civil since we all worked together. That lasted all of about three weeks. On my birthday I got a call from her and she invited me over to her place.

We started seeing each other again for a few months. She told me when we started up again that she was not ready for a relationship and that she couldn’t promise me anything. I was fine with that. I really liked her and wanted to give her space. But she’d call me every day. After a few weeks of this, she told me one day that she was finally feeling comfortable with the whole thing. Things were going well. And I was falling in love with her. I even left my job (for a better one), partly so that we wouldn’t have to worry about working together anymore.

About a month ago, I called her before I left to visit relatives out of state. She was totally shut down and refused to talk to me about anything. She told me that she needed alone time. I lost it. I demanded to know why this came up out of the blue. I told her it was over between us. I was done with her wishy-washy behavior. Right before I hung up on her, she told me that things could still be good between us. Two days after the “alone time” speech, I called her and she told me that she changed her mind. She told me she wasn’t ready for a relationship — not with me — not with anyone. I said some nasty things and told her that she would probably wind up having a “relapse” with this snark co-worker who broke her heart.

I’ve called her and e-mailed her several times demanding an explanation. Finally she told me that she was still in love with our co-worker. And while she knows it’s not reciprocal, she can’t help it. I also learned that he used her for sex yet again. This infuriated me because it meant that I had been heartbroken over a lie. She was perfectly willing and able to have a relationship, just not with me. I still care for her and love her. She’s hurting herself by chasing this windmill. Now she refuses to talk to me. Meanwhile, she told him just about every little detail of the relationship that she and I had. I feel like I’ve been sold out.

I should have seen the signs. But she sent me mixed signals. I suppose I believed the good ones and ignored the bad ones. Why am I the one being punished? Why is she confiding in this asshole who uses her and refusing to talk to me? I’m over the fact that she doesn’t want to be with me, but I want to be her friend and she won’t even let me do that.

Totally Confused Heartbroken Sucker

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Dear Totally Confused,

Your house has been burning for months now, but you keep running up to the flames and getting burned. You can’t seem to take your eyes off the spectacle of destruction. You’re drawn to it. You’ve got to turn around. Look away from the fire. Let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Go carefully in the other direction. Keep walking until there’s no more heat on your back and you can’t hear the roar. Find someplace cool and safe where there’s first aid. And don’t look back.

It wasn’t your house anyway, it was just a place you were staying because you hadn’t thought of anything better to do. So once you’re safe and your burns have healed, look for something better to do. That’s your job now. Casual hookups and one-night stands are fine if that’s what they are. But if you’re really looking for a more stable, committed relationship, then don’t expect casual things to turn into something else. You need to get clear about your intentions with women. If you’re the type of guy who’s likely to fall hard for a woman, then make sure the woman you fall hard for isn’t going to burn you.

In the meantime, to help you more fully understand your situation, maybe it would be helpful to make the distinction between a wound and a problem. The difference between a wound and a problem is that the problem can keep wounding you. A wound just heals. As long as you stay away from her, you don’t have a problem. You just have a wound that needs healing. Now if you go out and take one more look at that fire, and get burned again, then you have to start all over with the healing process. So stay away from the fire until you’re healed.

What would it mean to be healing? It would mean that even if you do on occasion think about her, even if you feel occasional pangs of regret and longing, you can honestly say to yourself and to anybody else that you’ve made a decision to let that episode go, that you fully understand you have no role in it anymore, that it’s none of your business — none.

Here’s a suggestion for the future. Next time, take it slow. Do not go to bed with a woman right away. Give it some time. Get to know her really well. Find out where she’s at emotionally. If she’s getting over a boyfriend, back off. What you need to look for is the ultimate clean, unencumbered, uncomplicated kind of romance, full of slow trust and careful commitment. It might not sound like so much fun, but, frankly, you’ve been a little reckless with your heart. So guard it more closely. It’s your heart. Be careful with it.

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