One cold January day in 2009, I sat in my therapist’s office and numbly contemplated the options before me. I could leave my then-husband and break up my family. I could stay and we could attempt couples’ counseling. Or I could stay, not do couples counseling, and agree with my husband that it was all just a mid-life crisis that we could simply put behind us and resume life as (mostly) normal. “Given our specific problems and their origins and duration,” I asked my therapist, “approximately how long will we have to do couples therapy before there would likely be any significant changes to our dynamic?”
She paused, obviously choosing her words carefully. “Weekly intensive therapy with a real desire on both your parts’ to make progress… approximately 2 years… give or take.”
I think I just stared calmly at her at first. My ears were ringing, my heart was pounding, and there was voice in my head screaming at the top of her lungs: “NOOOOO!!! No way can I do this for 2 more years! No way. No how. I won’t make it. I swear I can’t do!”
Ultimately, I shook my head determinedly. “No,” I said firmly. “I don’t have enough left. I just can’t do it anymore.”
The trouble with difficult relationship dynamics is that what we fear most is that things will be how they always were. He will be who he always was. I will be who I always was. Nothing will change. What always was, will always be.
Always was is a powerful idea.
As a college advertising student, I was fascinated by the piles of psychological and sociological studies that confirmed, over and over again, in study after study after study, that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. This applies as much to the way that we handle communication in a relationship as to the kind of toothpaste we buy. We humans are amazingly predictable; at least from a scientific standpoint. We are animals who fall into comfortable patterns that we cling to, even if those patterns no longer serve us. Unlike other animals, who mostly have no psychological attachment to their pattern, we cling to ours, pulling in denial, projection, and blame to defend them.
Later, as a law student, I spent lots of time contemplating the various rules of evidence barring admission of most previous crimes and behaviors, unless they have a direct and immediate baring on the case at hand. I sympathized with juries infuriated to learn, after issuing a Not Guilty verdict, that the defendant had been charged or convicted multiple times for similar or identical offenses. Even some of our most poorly educated citizens know that “if he’s done it before, he’s more likely to do it again.”
But, of course, it’s not always true. What always was does not have to always be.
I wrote a whole post not too long entitled “can people change?” and I am a firm believer in our human ability to arrest a behavior or pattern that we no longer like about ourselves and change it. People overcome horrible childhoods, abusive relationship choices, and personal addictions everyday. But the real tough part about change is when the pattern involves not just our own behavior, but our partner’s, as well. That partner — and his behavior — is the uncontrolled variable in the equation. As every successful rehab program knows, changing the addicted individual only gets you so far, if the people and influences around her remain toxic or undermine her attempts toward positive growth, she is most likely to fail in her attempts to affect real and substantial and lasting change.
Likewise, if the individual simply changes her surroundings, but not herself, the likelihood of repeating previous patterns is also high. I think a good example of this is the woman who moves from abusive relationship to abusive relationship, always thinking that the next guy will be “different,” without ever examining her own role in those choices or that abusive dynamic. The next guy might indeed be “different,” but if she is the same, the outcome might be eerily similar if not downright identical.
For most of us, these triggers and patterns are more nuanced than an addiction or an abusive relationship. They manifest as small patterns in our relationships… the way we retreat or attack when hurt… how we approach conflict… what we expect in terms of attention or affection or affirmation… how controlling or passive we are… the list goes on and on.
I recently had reason to consider my fear of what always was in the context of remarrying. Since my divorce, I have sworn, without reservation, that I will not remarry. Not because I am opposed to marriage as an institution, or because I don’t believe in commitment, or because of some feminist ideal, but because I came to fundamentally dislike who I was when I was married. I see clearly the things I did wrong in my marriage, my contributions to its failing, and the woman I became during that time. By the time I left my marriage, I didn’t really like her anymore. She was scared and closed off and depressed and impatient and fatalistic about things. She had sacrificed the best parts of herself to the altar of his criticisms and was left empty because of it, moving through a life that felt lonely and meaningless. I don’t ever, ever, ever want to be that woman again. But, I am afraid that what I always was then, is what I would always be the next time.
I watch with some degree of envy as other women assume that by trading out a mate, they are assured of creating a different outcome for their marital happiness. I am not convinced that it is so easy. True, the men I’ve dated since my divorce are almost complete opposites from my ex-husband in every way that matters, but that only accounts for half the equation, right? What about me? Have I changed enough to avoid all those old patterns? Have I figured out alternative responses and behaviors for the triggers that made me so unhappy in my marriage? Certainly a different partner will create a different environment and bring different trials and treasures to the table, but if I have not addressed my own dysfunctions, how will what always was no longer be?
And here’s what I realized: I have done a ton of work on myself since my marriage ended. I have no idea whether I would be the same person I used to be if I remarried, but if I’m really being honest with myself, I strongly doubt it. Not because of any particular partner I might someday share my life with, but because of me. I have changed. I’m no longer that woman I was and I can’t imagine letting her back in. Sure, I could hold onto that fear of what always was, and allow it choke away possibilities for my future, but that’s actually something that the old me would have done. So freeing myself of that “always was” fear is yet another way to liberate myself from her influence. I have no idea if I’ll every marry again, but I guess it’s time to let go of that particular fear and acknowledge some of the progress I’ve made. None of us gets any guarantees. We can only do our best and keep trying to do better.
As for my ex-husband, we have now been separated for just over 3 years and he has been doing his own therapeutic work during that time. He is also a different person than when we were married. Could we be happily married to each other now, having both worked so hard on ourselves as individuals? I don’t think so. The fundamental differences in our personalities are still there and they grate in ways that are still so confounding and discouraging sometimes. But we’re able to be pretty good friends to each other now, which might be all we ever should have been in the first place. A few years ago, it was a friendship I might have wished for, but never really expected.
Yet another example that what always was doesn’t have to always be.