How Meredith Goldstein became an advice columnist when her own love life was falling apart
An exclusive excerpt from the Love Letters columnist’s new memoir, “Can’t Help Myself.”
In Season One of her new Love Letters podcast, Meredith Goldstein explores what happens when love ends in a breakup. Listen to the podcast now, and subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and RadioPublic.
IT WAS NOT A GOOD TIME to start writing an advice column. I was not at my best. Not in 2008. I’d always been good at helping friends with their problems; I was the consoling, honest confidante who could make anyone feel better about a breakup or a bad first date. But during that long period of dejection, which lasted a full twelve months, I was the woman crying near the vending machines at work.
I had a special spot where I liked to turn into a puddle — next to two snack machines in the old Boston Globe pressroom where they prepared the circulars, those colorful ads with coupons that fit inside your newspaper. I’d sink to the floor under the glow of the Coke logo and weep, usually for about seven to eight minutes at a time. Sometimes no tears would come, and I’d dry-heave like the wind had been knocked out of me. Sometimes it was a Claire Danes Homeland cry, with a trembling chin and angry whimpers.
The vending machines were just out of the way of the spot where broad-shouldered men with Boston accents brought stacks of newspapers to and from a freight elevator. If those guys noticed me in tears, they didn’t let on. I’m sure they did notice, though, because my nose blows were mighty, like the trumpet of an elephant, thanks to my sinus polyps, which, according to my ear, nose, and throat doctor, are “very impressive.” I’d never been a big crier, but back then, I couldn’t stop myself from weeping about “Patrick” (not his actual name), my ex-boyfriend and co-worker, who’d dumped me when I’d least expected it.
Patrick, who took me to dinner by the beach and bought me cotton candy at Fenway Park. Patrick, who was the tallest guy I’d ever dated (6 feet 6!). Patrick, whose e-mails about our colleagues were so deliciously sarcastic that often I’d have to minimize them seconds after I received them so that no one near my cubicle would see.
Sometimes I’d cry about Patrick because I’d accidentally crossed paths with him in the Globe cafeteria. That kind of run-in was devastating, because he always looked content and relaxed — like the breakup hadn’t ruined his life. He wore his everyday khakis and button-down suit shirt, and chatted with co-workers with an easy smile on his face. I’d hide behind the cafeteria plants thinking, How dare he. How dare he eat.
Other times I cried because I hadn’t run into Patrick. Early on, I thought it would feel better to avoid him, so for the first few months after the breakup I brought a toaster to the office to make my English muffins at my desk. No more cafeteria for me. I would live in my cubicle like it was a panic room. But all the toaster did was attract mice — there were pellets everywhere — and I was no less miserable. Avoiding Patrick made me feel like he could just disappear, like our closeness had never happened.
I just wanted him back. I wanted him to run to my desk and tell me he’d made a mistake by letting me go. “I miss you,” he would say in my fantasies, with the slight Boston accent that got worse when he was drinking. “Let’s go get burgers.”
I was miserable without Patrick — but I never wanted to marry him. I didn’t want to have babies with him. I never even thought we’d move in together. The truth was that the breakup devastated me because I had no intention of marrying Patrick. I’d decided — during our short relationship — that he might be an alternative to everything I didn’t want.
As I entered my 30s, I was surrounded by peers who were either married or looking to be, but I didn’t see myself on that path. I couldn’t imagine living with anyone besides friends, and I had no desire to have kids. Maybe it had something to do with my mom, who gave up a piano performance career to marry my dad, only to get a divorce. She always said she loved raising my sister and me, and that on most days, teaching piano lessons in our living room was a more rewarding use of her Juilliard degrees, but I couldn’t imagine making those sacrifices for a relationship. I liked putting work first, and I loved my freedom. But that didn’t mean I wanted to be alone.
Patrick, a Massachusetts-bred sports fan who worked in the paper’s advertising department, was 37 when we met and seemed to share my lack of interest in marriage and kids. He’d managed to avoid marrying two decades’ worth of girlfriends, and still lived in a Brookline condo he’d bought after graduating from Holy Cross. He enjoyed his status quo, just like me. It all started when he approached me in the cafeteria to tell me he liked my writing, specifically my stories about nightlife and things to do around the city.
“I’m Patrick, from the advertising department,” he said with a big smile. “I liked your story the other day.”
He was blond with broad shoulders and looked like the kind of guy who had masculine nicknames in high school. Like Champ. Or Kicker.
After a few more inevitable run-ins around the building, we started to e-mail. Then we traded phone numbers and began texting. Months later, we shared our first meal outside of work. It took us even more months to admit our regular dinners, most of which were at the Cheesecake Factory, were probably dates. I began sleeping over, sometimes wearing his oversized Timberwolves T-shirt. I’d never dated the kind of guy who had a Timberwolves T-shirt. I didn’t care enough to ask why he was a fan of a team in Minnesota — I didn’t even know what sport the Timberwolves played — but I was happy to wear the uniform.
I fell hard for Patrick and adored all of the ways he was one hundred percent himself — and my opposite. He refused to try new foods, loved the Pogues, and liked to vacation in places like Las Vegas. When bad things happened, he’d spit out one of his many catchphrases: “Sucks to suck.”
People at work were shocked to find out we were dating. Patrick, who was beloved at the Globe, was Catholic and stoic and kept a stack of baseball biographies on his nightstand, whereas I was a Jewish oversharer who slept near a copy of Harry Potter. It didn’t matter, though; on nights we were both free, we could be happy together, ordering fast food, my feet in his lap as we watched television.
The thing I liked most about our relationship was that it was always about respecting each other’s separate routines as opposed to combining them. I’d text him while he was out at bars with friends, but never expected to come along. I never felt bad going to a party without Patrick because he never worried about missing out. We could always get together after and talk about the highlights. While other couples I knew took big next steps, Patrick and I stood still. I started to believe that we could maintain our noncommittal cable watching for the rest of our lives — that perhaps two people who weren’t fond of change were meant to stay exactly the same, together.
When he broke up with me, a move I hadn’t seen coming, he sat me down on his beige Jordan’s Furniture couch, under his framed 2004 Boston Red Sox World Series championship mementos, and said something like, “I just don’t see this going anywhere,” and I thought, “Me neither!”
I didn’t want to go anywhere with Patrick. That was the point. But it turned out Patrick was looking for a lot more. He was interested in new experiences and considered his lifestyle to be temporary. He wanted a real partner — maybe a wife — and I wasn’t even close to what he imagined for himself. He just hadn’t said so. I didn’t know where that left me, but I feared the answer was: alone.
After it was over, something changed in me. I stayed home a lot because I didn’t want to hang out with couples. I also avoided single people because they depressed me. I became a mediocre friend. At night, I rewatched every season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because Buffy had been through worse, and it made me feel like I had a destiny. Sometimes I’d watch the same episode a few times in a row while eating frozen waffles in bed.
If I ran into Patrick at work, face to face, my instinct was to bolt before he could talk to me. On rare occasions, though, I’d confront him, looking for more answers. One time I spotted him in the parking lot, near the rows of green Globe delivery trucks, and approached him, telling him that he’d “ruined the Cheesecake Factory for me.” That is something I said out loud.
“I can’t even go there anymore,” I told him. “The Cheesecake Factory was our thing, and now I can’t even set foot inside without getting upset.”
“Nope,” Patrick said, not letting that one pass. “I’m going to have to stop you right there. I did not ruin the [expletive] Cheesecake Factory for you, and you know it. You go to the Cheesecake Factory with everyone you know. You were going to the Cheesecake Factory long before I was around.”
He was right. I went to the Cheesecake Factory with everyone.
“But now the Cheesecake Factory makes me think of you,” I whined, and then grimaced, because I was embarrassed by the person I’d become. I was self-aware enough to know that with my blubbering and begging, I was one pint of ice cream and a flannel blanket away from becoming a more sedentary Bridget Jones, but I couldn’t stop myself. Sometimes breakups turn you into the kind of person you wouldn’t befriend in a million years. Sometimes they turn you into a caricature. In other words, sucks to suck.
IT WAS SHORTLY AFTER the Cheesecake Factory meltdown that my Boston Globe editors considered an idea I’d floated just before the breakup. After covering entertainment, nightlife, and social trends for years, I told my bosses I wanted to write a local advice column. I said I wanted the column to be written for an online community — with a robust comments section — so that it felt like a chat room. I would ask commenters to weigh in with their own advice to make the experience something like group therapy.
I was deeply interested in writing about the way people lived now — the expansion of Facebook, the dawn of text messaging, and the rise of online dating — and this kind of project seemed relevant.
Also, I’d sort of been an advice columnist for decades, at least to my family and friends. In my youth, I’d counseled my mom when she started dating again in her early 40s. She didn’t have any single friends who could make sense of her post-divorce life, so it was up to me to help, and my mom listened as though I were the expert. I helped her write dating profiles, first for the tiny print ads in Washingtonian magazine, before the Internet, and then for online sites that made it much easier to find love in the suburbs.
Once I was old enough, my mom’s questions became more . . . specific. I remember her calling me at college to ask whether she could have a man sleep over if she wasn’t ready to have sex with him.
“You can do other things. You can fool around for a while and then just fall asleep,” I told her, clutching my landline phone, covered in blankets in my freezing apartment at Syracuse University.
“I don’t think adults sleep in the same bed without having intercourse,” my mom said.
“You’d be shocked,” I replied. “Get creative.”
When I wasn’t debating the rules of dating with my mom, I was watching my older sister. Whereas my mom had always been a hopeless romantic — a classical musician looking for true love like some Jane Austen character — my sister, Brette, who’s more of a Bette Midler character, preferred big experiences and excitement.
From the time she was old enough to know what sex was, Brette had sexual chemistry with almost every human she met. She lost her virginity when she was 16 to one of the hottest guys at our high school. They did it in her twin bed while my mom was sleeping down the hall. Then they went outside and had sex on our swing set. Brette didn’t care that the hot popular guy was only offering a one-night stand, and that her peers would hear about it and judge. My mom found out about my sister’s virginity loss because Brette wound up doubled over in pain with a urinary tract infection. Even then, Brette had no regrets.
Counseling my sister was always different than advising my mom.
“Do you really need to do that?” “Are you sure you should be pursuing someone else’s boyfriend?” “Was it really a good idea to sneak alcohol on that school band trip by hiding it in a bag of maxi pads?”
With Brette, I honed my skills at advising without judgment. I learned that recklessness can sometimes yield beautiful results. I learned that women can live on their own terms, without caring about rules that someone else set for them. As I got older, my friends benefited from my instinct to talk things through, although it didn’t always feel like a plus.
When one of my closest guy friends from college got married, I was asked to be a “groomsmaid,” but I wasn’t invited to the bachelor party. I asked why, arguing that my being a woman should not prohibit me from attending the celebration.
“It’s not that,” he explained, looking pained. “Everybody knows that if you come, we’ll all wind up sitting around and talking about our feelings.”
I let it go, knowing he was right. Sitting around and talking about feelings was kind of my thing.
> SUBSCRIBE: In Season One of the new Love Letters podcast, Meredith Goldstein searches for a cure to the common breakup. Click here to listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts.
MY EDITORS WERE HESITANT about the advice column idea at first. But one editor of the website wanted to give it a try. The news business was changing, and he needed stories that would make people want to stay online all day. An advice column with a comments section was starting to sound like a good idea.
I panicked, because the breakup with Patrick had altered my brain. How could I be helpful to readers when it had become clear that I could no longer help myself? I can attribute my rally — in part, at least — to Lisa, an acquaintance from work who was around my age.
Lisa’s husband had died recently in his sleep because of some rare genetic problem that no one would have been able to prevent. Lisa had real troubles and had experienced genuine loss. All of a sudden she was alone in a condo in the suburbs trying to figure out how to start over without her life partner. As I listened to her talk about her new reality, I had enough sense to feel ashamed.
“I’m an idiot,” I told her. “Here I am, devastated about a dumb breakup with a guy I was dating for less than a year, and meanwhile, you lost a spouse. You’re experiencing real grief. I can’t believe I’ve been so stupid.”
Lisa’s response shocked me. She told me I wasn’t stupid at all.
“Sometimes breakups are worse than death,” she explained matter-of-factly. “The pain of rejection is different, but it can cut much deeper.”
Lisa told me she was sure that if her husband were alive, he’d want to be with her. The whole point of their marriage was that they never wanted to let each other go.
“But a breakup means that someone is content to live without you,” she said, looking at me like I was the one who deserved pity. “Patrick is healthy and alive and chooses not to have you around.”
It was true. Patrick was in Brookline, on that stupid beige couch, under that framed Globe sports page from 2004 that said “Finally!” probably eating a peanut butter sandwich, not thinking of me at all.
At the end of 2008, I published a call-out for love problems on the Globe’s website and crossed my fingers that someone would respond. I freaked out when I saw the first e-mail, shaking as I opened it, realizing that real humans — people I didn’t know — were going to tell me about their lives. A friend in the paper’s design department made a logo, a tiny envelope with a heart, and we decided to call the column Love Letters.
The first letter I answered, on January 22, 2009, was from a writer who went by “Desperate,” who lived in the suburban town of Rockland, Massachusetts. The entry drew reader comments within minutes. I was ecstatic. There were a few trolls who used the comments section to make fun of the letter writer (or to make strange, non-sequitur declarations about Tom Brady), but they were outnumbered by thoughtful people who seemed to want to help.
As the days went on and I published more letters, I’d end each column with something like, “Readers, what do you think?” to make sure everyone knew it was a discussion.
Within months of the launch of Love Letters, the number of comments tripled and then quadrupled. Most days, the website had a few hundred pieces of advice from readers within hours. It also appeared that it wasn’t just a local thing. Despite my theory that Boston needed its own advice column, people wrote in from all over the country, sometimes noting to me privately that they’d gone to college in Boston and landed elsewhere.
People wanted my advice — but they also wanted to crowdsource their love lives. I knew it was misery loving company. And yet, with the online company, I was starting to feel a lot less miserable. I didn’t know where I was drifting, but I knew I wasn’t the only person who felt unattached. My peers might be coupling up, getting married, having kids, and leaving me behind, but I had a new group of imaginary friends who kept me busy. They gave me countless problems to consider. With them, maybe I didn’t need Patrick. That said, I did hope he was reading.