I am a 25-year old woman living in North Carolina. I’ve been with my loving, consistent boyfriend (also 25) for a year now and I’ve been impressed with how easy and natural the relationship is. We live separately but see each other at least 2-3x/week and have keys to each other’s places. However, we spent the holidays together this year and it’s become apparent his family and childhood issues still haunt him.
His parent’s awful marriage and a genetic predisposition for mental illness left him in bad shape. I have no room to judge as the anxious child of a bitter divorce, but after 3 years of therapy and dozens of self help books I know I’ve done my part to become a healthy person and partner. He went to therapy as a child and a few times in college, but since then hasn’t been back.
Even though he has always been emotionally available, some of his habits make me want to ask him to see a therapist. He gets jealous even though he’s never been cheated on, and if he has one too many beers, feelings and tears usually follow. He often agonizes over what people think of him and will go to events he doesn’t even like so friends won’t be upset (and expects me to attend). When I ask him why he’s like this, he’s very self aware and explains to me how he’s feeling and why he feels that way. For example, he has jealousy issues from witnessing his father’s affairs growing up.
I love him and want to accept him as he is, but is it fair to ask him to go to therapy and at least try to work through these issues? If so, how can I approach the subject without making him feel attacked? We’ve already discussed marriage as a possibility in the next few years and I really want us to have a healthy relationship. Thank you!
I appreciate your sensitive and self-aware letter, and applaud you for getting the help you needed to become a healthier partner.
I, too, am a self-help person. Even though I grew up in a stable, loving family. Even though I was given all the self-esteem and resources one could ever hope for. There’s always something to learn and improve. You and I have what is known as a growth mindset.
My wife, on the other hand, is not a self-help person. She, too, grew up in a stable, loving family, and is generally a well-adjusted, happy woman. But when we were first dating, I’d hear her complain about her work and offer to help her communicate with her boss or maybe start her own company, and she’d immediately tune out. I’d tell her about a book I read or a seminar I attended and encourage her to check it out. Nope. Not interested. My wife has a fixed mindset. Change, in general, is unwelcome and scary. Probably comes from her family. Everything’s okay. Nothing to see here.
About one year into our relationship, I cornered my future wife on this question of why she refused to look inward. Her answer bowled me over.
“You do all this self-help stuff but I’m happier than you are.”
Mic drop. There really wasn’t much to say after that. I’ve largely stopped asking her to do formal self-help. But I still lapse into my ways — the self-help professional know-it-all, while she digs into what she calls “the most stubborn passive person you’ll ever meet” persona.
My wife may be crying because she’s tired and overwhelmed, but will she change? Nope. She’s going to do things her way, even if her way isn’t making her happy. I would guess, Karima, that most people are a lot more like my wife and your boyfriend than like you and me.
People don’t change because YOU want them to change. They change because THEY want to change.
I didn’t mean to hijack your story, because they’re not perfect parallels, but I do think it’s instructive to recognize something that is essential to understand about relationships. People don’t change because YOU want them to change. They change because THEY want to change. You can’t sign up someone with a personal trainer against her will. You can’t get a guy a better job if he’s too lazy or scared to change careers. And that’s the frustrating part of relationships with those who have fixed mindsets. The good part is that you know EXACTLY what you’re going to get from your guy in the future — more of the same.
So does your boyfriend need therapy? You betcha. Is it your job to force him to go therapy? No way.
If, in the context of a conversation where he tearfully describes how frustrated he is, and asks for your guidance, you can certainly SUGGEST therapy, but you can’t foist it upon him. That’s exactly what happened to me last December when my wife pulled a bunch of all-nighters due to stay-at-mom overwhelm. I saw this as my opening. I bought her a book called “Time to Parent — Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You” for Christmas. It’s still sitting unread on her night stand. If it’s going to get read, I’ll have to do it and give her the Cliff Notes, which will be skimmed, but not absorbed. This dynamic will continue for the rest of our lives.
Long story short, you can’t save anyone from himself. Your leverage — if you choose to exercise it — is to let him know that because you want to build a stable, happy marriage, you’d like him to look into some form of self-help that will ensure success for both of you.
If things are that bad — and you really don’t feel safe in staying if he doesn’t change, then, well, you’re going to have to walk away and find a man without his issues. The question is whether you’re willing to do that, and no one else can answer that question except you.