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Love, Actually

This advice columnist has no time for men seeking absolution

Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected].

Dear Your Sorry Ass,

Two years ago, I started dating a co-worker who was in the process of divorcing her now-ex husband. I was twenty-two and she was twenty-seven; I had no dating experience, she was formerly married with two small children. She was at that time going through a rough stretch in life—she lost her father less than a month after getting divorced—and what started as a supportive friendship turned into a relationship of deep care and love. We dated for about a year, and I got close with her kids, who were then two and three. This was all very scary and unexpected, and led to major anxiety on my part, as I aspired to leave my midwestern hometown (where we were living) and move to the coast—something that simply wasn’t possible for her and her children.

It killed me to be in love with someone and to know they loved me too, but to know in my heart that to be with this person would be to sacrifice my dreams. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make it work, but eventually I ended things because my anxiety was too great. The relationship really soured toward the end, as she started to take responsibility upon herself for “holding me back.”

It killed me to be in love with someone and to know they loved me too, but to know in my heart that to be with this person would be to sacrifice my dreams.

Since we broke up, both of our lives have moved in positive directions. We clearly made a huge positive impact on each other, and we decided to fight through the challenges of mourning our relationship and push forward as friends. Now we even live in the same neighborhood, and get together frequently to talk and support each other.

Of course, underlying all of this is still a sense of deep love for one another. But I have no clue how to feel about it, much less what to do. Maybe I’m just a shitty guy who had a savior complex at the wrong time for someone else. I was fresh out of college and had a deeply Marxist mindset—to each according to their needs, from each according to their ability—and I had time and energy to devote to someone who needed support. Maybe this whole thing was taking advantage of someone who was having a rough stretch. I dedicated immense energy to making our relationship work and supporting her as she embarked on a new journey in her life. She and I used to stay up until 3 a.m. every night because she was too anxious to sleep—I started to see negative health effects as a result, and had to do something to save myself. I simply wasn’t ready psychologically to be waking up in the morning to the cries of my partner’s children.

Is it patriarchal of me to prioritize my own dreams and aspirations over the love and needs of someone I truly care about? Is this what it is to be a white man in the world—I just get to move through spaces imposing my will upon situations, only to leave when they don’t meet my personal expectations? Or is it possible for the two of us to continue being friends and supporting one another while recognizing the incompatibility of our relationship? Maybe those aren’t even the right questions . . .


The Ex-Lover


Dear Ex-Lover,

The only woman you’re subjecting to male entitlement right now is me, with this sanctimonious humble-brag of a wounded deer “confessional.” I mean, my god.

“Maybe I’m just a shitty guy who had a savior complex at the wrong time for someone else.”

Are you fucking kidding me? Leave something for the encore.

Are you fucking kidding me? Leave something for the encore. How about “You know, what if—as a self-flagellating woke male, who constantly reminds himself of his own ‘privilege,’ but nonetheless wants women to morally validate his totally reasonable break-ups—I’m just . . . too feminist???” You don’t want advice. You know you did nothing wrong because you literally lay out the very good reasons why your relationship didn’t work.

What you do want is for a woman—me, I’m the woman here—to tell you you’re a Good Man. Well tough shit, because my patience is extremely low for this particular brand of cynical male narcissism. If you’re actually grappling with guilt here, I’ll bet my first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves that it’s not because you had an unfortunate yet ethical break-up. Maybe you like the moral validation. Maybe you like the drama. Maybe you really do have a “savior complex”—which is not the altruistic compulsion it’s commonly taken to be. You know who else had a savior complex? Jim Jones.

If I sound harsh, dear readers, it’s because the conflation of romantic incompatibility and gendered oppression has absolutely got to stop, and it is especially annoying when an aspirationally virtuous man uses the spectre of patriarchy to squeeze emotional support out of women. I am not a fan of “it’s not my job to educate you,” especially since it literally is my job to be a representative of my own politics. It is not however, my job (or even helpful in any way), to gas up every woke male feminist fishing for compliments. It’s an undignified and disgusting ballet of mutual masturbation, and dating is hard enough without all the pseudo-political dramatizations.

To anyone reading this column who isn’t Ex-Lover, try to remember that romance is quite fraught and often miserable regardless of the sexual politics at play. If you don’t believe me, read up on gay and queer dating; even without the context of general social heteronormativity, the power dynamics in a relationship of people of the same gender are no fucking walk in the park either. In fact, I suggest as a grand experiment, let’s have a whole year of moratorium on gender—nothing but unisex jumpsuits for all participants, and everyone’s pronouns will be “bread” and “toast.” I one hundred percent assure you that dating and love will still be a harrowing experience. My advice is quit trying to politically cultivate romance on a micro-level and just enjoy the adventure.

Be honest, kind and fair, both to yourself and to potential partners, and for the love of God, don’t use some farcical feminist pretense to squeeze reassurance out of others. You don’t get points for being decent.