Relationships are for growing, not for growing apart
A reader writes, “I’m 26 and my boyfriend is 29. We’ve been together for just under a year.
“I was once a self confessed pessimist, but gradually turned myself into an optimist. My boyfriend is a really hardcore pessimist. He believes he is a realist, and that I have my head in the clouds.
“I want to try and help him at least consider the optimistic point of view, but he truly believes that his outlook is an innate trait which cannot be undone or changed. I have said to him, ‘well I changed mine’, but again he believes that his pessimistic views are too ingrained within him to change.
“Thing is, looking on the outside in it’s so clear what needs to be done, but I do remember when I was trying to change and it was initially very difficult. Do you have any tips as to how I can get the ball rolling? I’ve tried saying to him ‘well have you considered it from this viewpoint?’ but I feel it falls on deaf ears.
“I feel given the stress we’ve been under it has really got my boyfriend down. He’s had his own health issues as well as mine, but I feel his pessimistic way of looking at things is preventing him from getting better, and this is really putting obstacles in his way as to what he wants to achieve.
“I know I cannot directly change him, but I really want to try and encourage him to break out of this habit of looking at things so negatively. I feel if he could look at things with an optimistic viewpoint he would be happier, healthier, less self critical and have better self-esteem. From there I’m sure he’ll ‘get that dream job’, so to speak, and he’ll understand the short term and long term benefits of looking at things with an optimistic point of view.
“Do you have any suggestions?”
Couples involve two people. In this case, I have received the point of view of one of the two parties. I cannot offer advice without hearing from the other party. Yet, I may be able to help by discussing facts, options, and possibilities. They may help our reader to arrive at her own conclusion and decision.
Solutions are answers to questions. So, whenever we face a problem and are looking for a solution, we have to get into the habit of asking lots of questions. For this reason, you will find this article sprinkled, here and there, with questions.
What options does our reader have? Well, she can accept her boyfriend as he is, try to change him, or try to change herself. Let’s look at each option separately.
ACCEPT HER BOYFRIEND AS HE IS. Well, the reason our reader wrote is that the clash of perspectives between her and her boyfriend is stressful. She doesn’t want more of the same, but is hoping for an improvement in the situation.
Besides, even if we assume she wishes to be compassionate and accept her boyfriend unconditionally, compassion must be balanced with good judgment. For example, I recently read about a man that wants to help pedophiles after their release from prison.
Psychologists generally believe that pedophiles cannot be cured, and, consequently, always pose a threat to society. Yet, I admire the gentleman who is compassionate enough to want to help them.
But I disagree with his decision to invite a pedophile to live with his family, which includes a 16-year-old daughter. After all, in his support for the pedophile, the father willingly places his daughter at risk.
Similarly, if our reader has a heart of gold and wishes to help those who are bitter and pessimistic, I say good! That is a noble cause. But if that is her wish, shouldn’t she become a social worker? Social workers do much good, but they don’t marry those they look after. The reason they don’t marry one of their troubled or emotionally disturbed cases is not because the people they look after are unimportant, but because marriage is important, too important to take unnecessary risks.
TRY TO CHANGE HIM. Countless divorces have come about because of starry-eyed women who naively believed that they could change their boyfriends after marriage. We cannot change others; we can only change ourselves. Yet, that doesn’t mean that we cannot inspire change or provide opportunities that encourage change.
At this moment, her boyfriend has no incentive to change. Why should he? He has learned that if he makes a couple of excuses, his girlfriend will continue to see him, so why change? His claim to be a “realist” is more than likely merely a cover-up for his unwillingness to change. Either that or he is in denial. His argument that he can’t help himself because it is his nature is without merit. That is because our nature is to become what we repeatedly do. In other words, we create our “nature” with our habits. When we change our habits, we change our “nature.”
Although her boyfriend is unwilling to change now, is there something she can do to try and turn things around? Yes, I think there is a possibility. She can tell her boyfriend something like the following: “What can be more interesting than understanding how and why we think as we do. I just got a book based on the latest research that teaches ordinary people how to master their lives rather than being beaten down by circumstances. It’s packed with exercises that make life exciting and helps its readers to unleash their unlimited potential. I like you very much, that’s why I’ve been giving our relationship serious thought. I think we can both benefit from the book, and to make our relationship stronger, I suggest we work on it together for one hour every time we meet.”
The name of the book is “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” by Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D. and Spencer Smith, and it was published by New Harbinger Publications in 2005. I suggest our reader get the book and try to work on it with her boyfriend. If she follows this suggestion, she cannot lose.
First, in the best case scenario, both will grow and her boyfriend will finally be able to free himself from the shackles of pessimism. Second, even if her boyfriend refuses to cooperate, she can do the program alone and greatly benefit. Third, if her boyfriend refuses to cooperate, it sends a clear warning to our reader. And after completing the program, she will find that she is strong enough to move on to option 3.
TRY TO CHANGE HERSELF. Our reader can change the way she currently sees things by asking herself a serious of questions such as: “Where do I see this relationship heading? Do I respect and admire my boyfriend enough to love him and want to marry him?
After marriage, do I want to wake up with a smile or a headache? Do I feel worthy of a lasting, loving relationship or am I willing to settle for less? Does my boyfriend want to get the most from life or is he willing to settle for less and just get by? If he’s willing to settle for less, am I willing to settle for him? What type of person do I want for my life partner? If there are children involved, what type of person do I want to have as their father? What are my beliefs about marriage? Do I deserve a lifelong happy marriage or am I willing to take a chance on a relationship that may end in divorce? Am I willing to have the judgment to pick a partner that will uplift me, not bring me down, someone who will inspire me, not disappoint me, someone who is excited by life, a willing participant, not someone who is standing on the sidelines watching life go by?”
Someone once said, “A relationship is what happens between two people who are waiting for something better to come along.” Is that the way our reader wishes to live?
When I was a young man, I knew that I would eventually marry and took marriage very seriously. So, after starting a relationship with my wife, I didn’t marry her until I was absolutely certain I wanted her to be my life partner. After a year and a half of dating, we were married, and we have been together 45 years, without any regrets. I’m glad I took marriage seriously; it’s something I recommend everyone do.
By the way, I am not an expert on marriage, but Dr. John M. Gottman is. He is a psychology professor at the University of Washington and the founder and director of the Seattle Marital and Family Institute. He invites couples, such as our reader and her boyfriend, into the institute and asks them to discuss for ten minutes an issue that they find irritating (such as optimism versus pessimism). Once they start a discussion, within three minutes Dr. Gottman can predict with higher than 90% accuracy whether the couple will get divorced.
If our reader goes through Dr. Gottman’s book, she will learn what to look for as she and her boyfriend discuss their issues, and she too will be able to predict the outcome of their relationship. For those who are interested, the book is “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” by John M. Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver, Orion, 2004.
According to Helen Rowland (1875 ~ 1950), “Nowadays love is a matter of chance, matrimony a matter of money and divorce a matter of course.” To our reader I say, don’t make love a matter of chance. Make it a matter of choice. And since marriage may be the most important decision you make, choose your partner carefully.