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.
5 responses to “always was”
You bring up compelling arguments. I believe behavior can change but not personalities. Which is it that attracts me in the first place? A combination of both. There is something very soothing about being alone and unmarried. Women tend to get the short end of the stick in marriage. Personality isn’t enough for me to compromise my independence and behaviors will drive a nail into that lid for sure. I know by feeling this way, I must stay unattached because I am clearly not ready for sharing or compromise.
Very good post. I’ve been struggling with similar pieces in my own life. I find I am revisiting (in my head) the old relationship and really taking more ownership for my part of that failing. I also find that I really enjoyed my time being single. In fact, it is my comfort zone. Being in a relationship (long term, married or not) takes so damn much work. Somehow I find myself programmed to be the one to give first and give most – at least that’s the view from here – and when all is said and if the relationship is done, I am worse off than when it started. For my part better boundaries seem key… Something along the lines of a solid cement wall sounds about right.
Very interesting and well thought out post. I agreed that with a lot of therapy and a true willingness to change it is possible and both people must truly commit to it. I also agree with The Edmonton Tourist that behavior can be changed but a person’s personality is not likely to change. I think sometimes two people simply bring out the worst in each other because of personality conflicts.
One thing I have noticed with friends and in my personal relationships, once a cheater always a cheater.
I am with Edmonton Tourist in mindset, I don’t know if I could sacrifice my independence and freedom for a relationship any more. I am done rushing home to make dinner, dealing with someone else’s moods, messes, schedule etc. Right now I can’t see that changing any time soon.
Thanks for the great comments…. really got me thinking, too….
The whole personality/behavior thing is probably the crux of it all, isn’t it? That crystallizes nicely why, for instance, my ex and I still wouldn’t work. Our personalities really aren’t suited for sharing a whole life together, even when our behaviors are sufficiently altered to allow us to be better to each other.
I also realized, reading your comments, that I don’t “want” marriage the way that I did when I was younger, and I definitely don’t need it. It’s still hard to imagine myself married to anyone, for all the reasons that Carrie and Cowgirlz cited — I don’t want to juggle all my stuff and all their stuff and feel like it’s all on my shoulders all of the time. That was a lot of “alls” in that sentence, intentionally, because that’s how I remember it feeling… like, as Cowgirlz said, I gave first and most and without healthy boundaries. By the time I left, being married felt like drudgery to me… some kind of indentured servitude. Feeling like I have to ask permission to pursue the things I like doing or spend time with the people that nurture me is nothing short of an emotional prison. And if that’s the only marriage model available to me, then I won’t be remarrying.
I think I’ve reopened the door to the possibility by acknowledging that not every marriage I know follows that model. I do know a few — a very few — where the people seem to be individuals partnering through a life together, rather than filling the roles of Husband and Wife. I really don’t want to be anyone’s Wife again. I don’t want to wash his dirty underwear and make him chicken and rice and listen to his work troubles and feel, pretty much all the time, unsupported and unappreciated and even, frequently, unloved. But if a man appears with a different model, I think I am now sufficiently changed and matured and self-aware as to seriously consider the possibility, rather than dismissing it out of hand. If I can love him and love myself, too, then I think I could get on board for that.
They say basic personalities (not to be confused with behaviors) are set by the time a person is 10. I’m pretty sure this is true.
If the behavior is the problem, I do think it can be modified and changed. A lot of what we do- how we think; how we react- is learned; some is not. There is a balance of nature vs nurture. I think if you can figure out your nature and what is instinctive to you, your nature can change, with or without outside influence.
Not many people, though, are that self aware, and many don’t really WANT to reprogram their base behavior.
And honestly, some people are just too damaged for real change to take root and stick. Much of life is spent dealing with the reactions to our actions, and sometimes, we just can’t exert enough influence over the whole thing to make transformative change.
9/10 of our lives, imo, is reaction- reaction to someone; reaction to something; reaction to ourselves.
Sifting through all of that can be tedious and time consuming. Often, people get to the end of it and realize that they can change behaviors and change reactions, but the person inside is still the same and they (still) can’t stand him/her….