My current column discusses a trap in which all too many of us find ourselves: the struggle to change a partner so that he or she can make us happier. It's attached and embedded below. Enjoy!
All the best,
The Examined Life
Tom Moon, MFT
Losing the Love War
Q: I’ve been with my boyfriend for almost two years, but he’s still holding me at arm’s length. He has a big problem with using the L word. Except for once when we first got together, he won’t say it. He says I should just know how he feels without needing him to constantly say it. He has a thousand friends and has to spend time with every one of them, so I get about one evening alone with him per week. And most of the time he won’t schedule anything with me until the last minute. Whenever I try to make plans with him in advance, he says “Well, let’s see how the week goes.” And if he doesn’t want to do something that I suggest, he won’t say so directly. He’ll be vague and beat around the bush until the last minute and then come up with some bullshit excuse about why he can’t.
He’s afraid of being close and committed, even though he wants it. I spent a lot of time in psychotherapy working to get over my miserable childhood with emotionally checked-out parents, so I understand why he’s the way he is. It all goes back to his own childhood with two alcoholic parents that he could never trust or rely on. (But he’s still not free of them. He has never come out to them, and I have to make myself scarce whenever they visit.) Now he’s compulsively independent because he feels it’s too dangerous to let himself get committed and intimate with any one person. He really needs therapy but he says he doesn’t believe in it. I know he’s just scared of it for the same reason he’s scared of committing to me, but I don’t know how to get him to see that. We may not make it if I can’t get him to see somebody and deal with all his fears and traumas. How can I get him to understand that?
A: Are you asking the right question? You’re on a mission to get your boyfriend into therapy so that he’ll get fixed and become the kind of partner you need. My question is: Who’s sweating? You have problems with how he’s living his life, but there’s nothing in what you wrote that suggests he does. Your idea that he’s deeply affected by unresolved childhood experiences sounds plausible, but isn’t that equally true of you? Is it just a coincidence that, having been raised by “emotionally checked-out parents” you’re now trying to change an emotionally checked out boyfriend?
Children growing up in families with parents who can’t meet their emotional needs have little choice but to use any strategy they can to get their needs met. They typically become adept at the “love war.” They learn to beg, demand, manipulate, wheedle, cajole, guilt-trip – whatever gets them something approximating love and attention. Many develop a “reparative fantasy” – the delusion that there’s some way they can fix their caregivers so that they’ll become the parents they should be. Unfortunately, those who have this pattern often carry it into adulthood. They connect with partners who, like your boyfriend, have an avoidant relationship style, and then they treat them as human reclamation projects.
The bottom line is that you aren’t going to be able to change your boyfriend’s personality. It is true that people do sometimes make dramatic changes in psychotherapy, but only if they are highly motivated to change because of their own suffering. Not much happens if they go into therapy to please a partner (or get him off their backs). You aren’t going to be able to win this love war, because these wars are inherently impossible to win. I think your real task is to stop struggling with him and do some inner work yourself. Avoid the temptations of wishful thinking and ask yourself this hard question: If you could know for certain that he will never be any different than he is today, could you stay with him? Can you accept him as he is, including the qualities you don’t like? If you can, great, but if the answer is no, maybe it’s time to move on. Love by itself usually isn’t enough to keep a relationship going. Compatibility is equally important.
Tom Moon, MFT
Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy / EMDR
Office address: 879 14th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114
Tel: (415) 626-1346