Dear Dr. Romance:
Yesterday I purchased your book It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction
I'm a 45-year-old divorced woman who has been dating a similarly-aged man for over three years. This man is not without his flaws, of course, but is someone with whom I share a solid friendship, have a ton of respect for, and genuinely love.
Unfortunately, I'm a hair's-breadth away from irreparably ruining this relationship. A few days ago I pinpointed why: I lack the ability to exhibit the empathy and compassion necessary to sustain a mature relationship. I recognize no one's needs but my own; I fight to win; I offer solutions while dismissing feelings; etc., etc., etc. I believe that my shortcomings arise not from some inherent defectiveness, but from long-standing habits which I developed to survive my childhood and to thereafter fight against my past and "make something of myself" as an adult. Accordingly, I also believe that with a bit of work (i.e., the assistance of your book) I can become the empathic partner (person) I'd like to be.
But I have three questions for you. The first, I realize, can only be answered hypothetically: Do you think I can stop my destructive patterns quickly and effectively enough to ensure I won't cause additional damage to my already-rocky relationship, or would you advise me to be on my own until I'm confident I will no longer engage in these behaviors?
Second, do you think it's realistically possible for one to successfully establish -- and maintain -- new patterns in a relationship that's been in a dysfunctional "groove" for years? And my third question is along the same line: I know it's possible, but is it probable that my self-improvement will actually end the relationship? In other words, doesn't the drama, tension, and sabotage that I bring to this relationship have some payoff for him? And if so, isn't it likely that as I become healthier he'll unconsciously "ramp up" his own baggage (for lack of a better word) to keep things at status quo?
Thanks a lot for your help.
Good for you! You have made the first, big step: taking responsibility for your behaviors, thoughts, and words. I am proud of you for that. Here are the answers to your questions:
Stopping your old behavior won't be instant, but if you tell your partner what you told me, and let him know you see the need for change, and are working on it, he might be patient enough to hang in there with you. If he does still care enough to give you a chance, and he then sees that you are changing, that should be enough to keep him involved. Because you need to change your patterns in relationship to him, I don't think leaving would help.
Yes, I know it's possible to successfully establish and maintain new patterns in a relationship. I see it every day in my counseling practice. Each of you has overcome other bad habits in life, and learned new behaviors. You can do this, too. Often, the reason we keep doing what doesn't work is that we don't have a clue what will work better. The realization that you need to change is the most important part. Now that you're getting a clue, you'll see that the new behaviors work well enough to be self-motivating.
You are wise to consider that your self-improvement will actually end the relationship; it's all a normal part of change, and part of the rocky road you go through to create lasting change. Yes, this relationship might not survive the change process, and it's even possible that as you make changes, you'll start to see his involvement in the "sabotage:" damaging a relationship takes two. Whatever happens, you're telling me that this relationship is damaged and not likely to last as it is, so it will either improve or end. Even if it ends, you'll have learned much better relating skills and techniques, and improved your relationship with yourself (which is what your relationship with anyone else is based on) so all future relationships will work better. That means, if this doesn't work out, you'll be better equipped to find the right partner and develop a healthy relationship. Doing this work means you can't lose -- the outcome is always better.
How to Be Happy Partners: Working it out Together is my newest book on relationships, and it will teach you and your partner the skills you need to be happy together.
For low-cost counseling, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org