Yes, I think too much


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A friend of mine recently broke up with her boyfriend of several years for the second time. They came together under less than optimal circumstances when she needed his support due to stress related to her elderly mother’s advanced Alzheimer’s and he was coming off of a divorce. They had known each other for well over a decade, and he claimed to have been in love with her for a very long time but her availability and his never meshed. Since they already knew each other, and their feelings were mutual, she had him move in with her immediately after he professed his feelings for her.

This was my friend’s first mistake. While they certainly knew each other, they didn’t know enough about each other. Their lives together were marked by a relatively high level of chaos, both in terms of lifestyle (her house was always a mess, she kept a lot of pets as part of animal rescue work and he didn’t help much with housework) and finances (she had to abandon high-paying work to care for her mother, he had child support and lost his job). When they got together, she wanted to help him out with his mounting debts and loaned him a good deal of money. He helped her deal with the stress of her mother’s situation and later helped her through treatment for cancer. Emotionally, he was there for her, but in terms of many of the other aspects of being a good partner, he had some serious issues.

In the end, the main points that pushed them apart were her inability to make a place for him in her house with so many pets and his inability to be responsible financially. Animal waste had contaminated many living areas and she refused to relegate the animals to a certain area of the house because she feared for their comfort. She also has always been disorganized and had too much stuff and was unwilling or unable to make the time to get it all together. On his side, he lived like a teenager and spent money on man-toys and didn’t worry about making enough money to cover his debts or help with household expenses. He saw his bills as something that was “small stuff” that he wasn’t going to sweat.

My friend often spoke to my husband and I about her problems and often sent the message that she thought she could change him. She also thought that he could simply make a choice to be a grown-up and then all of their problems could be solved. She is in her late 40’s and he is in his mid-40’s and I think the chances that either of them could make a serious character change is pretty low, particularly when both have a long history of being exactly the people that they are and resisting change.

Both my husband and I recommended that she consider her boyfriend as a package she couldn’t alter the contents of. If she was going to have a relationship with him, she would simply have to accept that he would always be irresponsible financially and that she should incorporate that idea into her relationship with him and take steps to separate herself entirely from that part of his world. She shouldn’t let him live with her (and indeed, she threw him out without breaking up with him initially), but they should carry on getting together, dating, or enjoying each other’s company without her interfering or concerning herself with his finances. We encouraged her to simply accept who he was and not try to change him, because we were both sure that it wasn’t a choice he could make. His character simply wouldn’t allow him to become the person she wanted him to be. She wouldn’t give up on the idea of his changing himself though. She insisted that she could work with him and “fix” him and said she might “surprise (us)” by whipping him into shape.

After she threw him out, he decided to break up with her rather than carry on as a couple. He took up with another woman and the first thing he did was go out and buy an expensive electronic toy that he didn’t need. Shortly after he did this, he had misgivings and they got back together, but she made it clear that he had to change. She went through her lists of things he’d have to do if he wanted to have a relationship with her, including getting a second job to cover all of his bills. Within 30 days, they were finished again because he texted hundreds of pages of messages behind her back to the woman he had briefly hooked up with after the first break up. When she confronted him about this inappropriately hidden communication, his response was rather flat and unemotional.

My sense was that he gave up emotionally because he knew he couldn’t become the person she wanted him to be. The transition from late-middle-aged man-child who acted impulsively and irresponsibly to mature, responsible adult who carried two jobs to pay bills and for kids he didn’t really want was a leap he simply didn’t want to make and deep down couldn’t even find the emotional energy or motivation to attempt. She pushed him to change. He pushed her to change. Neither changed, and the relationship ended again.

During their relationship, I constantly counseled her to accept him as he was, but that didn’t mean that I believed he was “right” or that his behavior was acceptable. If you love someone, you can’t make them reshape themselves into the person you want them to be. They may choose to change for your benefit or in order to improve the quality and strength of the bonds of your relationship, but it has to be their choice. I knew he was never going to make such a choice because I didn’t think he had the capacity to do so. Deep down, he had too many issues to deal with holding him back from being a man.

My friend, though I never told her this, is also never going to change. She has been a disorganized procrastinating person who takes on far more responsibility than she can manage for her entire life. She talked about cleaning things up and getting her house in order, but she rarely did anything of consequence. If he wanted to be with her, this was likely something he would have had to accept.

People often enter relationships with eyes open to the best attributes of their partner and with multiple blind spots to the less appealing ones. As time goes by, vision improves and you see the whole picture. It isn’t important that your partner be perfect, but it is important that those areas which he or she cannot change be ones which you can be sanguine about. If you feel those areas must be changed, then you have to talk about it and then see if your partner is willing and able to change. He or she may not be. It’s not a reflection on the love your significant other has for you, but rather one of their character and capacity to change.

No one wants to be like my friend or her boyfriend in terms of their more negative character traits. He would like to be responsible and she would like to be organized and clean, but some part of each of them can’t make the transition. This doesn’t mean they can’t have relationships with others or each other, but rather that part of the package deal for loving them has to be that a partner can live with these issues without expecting change or being unhappy.

I’ve been very fortunate because my husband hasn’t had any critical issues that he has been unwilling to work on, and he has also been fortunate in that I have worked out many of my issues. In those few areas that remain which seemingly cannot be changed, we both try to recognize the yin and yang aspects of those traits. I may sometimes be pesky in my attention-seeking, but this is part of an overall character aspect of being interested in him, paying attention to him, and caring for his company more than anyone else’s. He can’t have the attention he wants 90% of the time without having some attention he doesn’t want 10% of the time. In his case, he can be absent-minded and forgetful, and this sometimes makes me feel like he doesn’t care enough about things which I value, but the truth is that this is part of his nature as someone who is calm and unflappable most of the time. He wouldn’t be at peace and a source of strength without this ability to not fret over little details. I don’t forget much, but that’s only because I’m a worrier.

Obviously, the character issues my husband and I have are very small compared to my friend and her boyfriend’s problems, but I think that she and he could have worked it out had she constructed an altered image of how their lives together would have worked. Rather than seeing their happily-ever-after as him working hard, getting his spending and debts under control, and giving up on all of his toys, she should simply have seen their wagons as emotionally hitched and economically independent, but she wouldn’t let go of her plans to see him as someone who had to have his act together and rejection on this level made him see her negative traits more strongly and eventually emotionally be absent from the relationship.

We all have to consider what we can and can’t accept, and I wouldn’t be able to live with the sort of behavior exhibited by the man my friend was in a relationship with. Of course, I wouldn’t tolerate her behavior either, but each person has different areas which they find acceptable and unacceptable. Every relationship’s chance of success becomes much higher if people don’t try to change each other and each person tries to become a better person of their own volition. When one or both require change of the other, then the relationship is in trouble, if not doomed.


Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 20, 2010 at 5:15 am

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