When you first meet Jenny, it doesn’t occur to you that this woman could have been in an abusive marriage for years. She’s friendly and pleasant to talk with, and she seems to have a lot of confidence in herself. I had known her for a month or so before she mentioned her past abuse to me. As the story came out, it was disturbing to me.
Jenny is about 60. She’s been divorced for two years, after a decades-long marriage to the man she still calls her soulmate. But her husband was emotionally abusive in ways that left her feeling like a shell of herself. After years of falling apart in ways that I won’t describe, she finally divorced him. She feels emotionally safer now, but she misses the man she considers her soulmate.
I found out Saturday that she talks to her former husband three times each day now. They didn’t talk for awhile, but the divorce hit him hard and forced him to start re-evaluating himself. She said he’s changing. They’re talking seriously about getting back together again.
Do people really change? Or are we just fooling ourselves when we believe we’re changing for the better? And when we trust people who have hurt us before, are we just fooling ourselves?
I was already thinking about this subject when I started having some email correspondence Saturday evening with someone who I once hurt in several ways — all of them unintentional, but all of them my fault. While I had been thinking about Jenny’s story from her point of view — and not wanting to see her get hurt again — I realized uncomfortably that I was the one playing the role of the formerly hurtful partner in those emails. I didn’t like it. And I didn’t like seeing myself that way.
I’ve mentioned this before, but about three and a half years ago, I lost someone who I never should have lost. I don’t know if there’s really such a thing as soulmates, but if they exist, I’d found mine. For better or worse — in both strengths and flaws — we were well-matched in many respects. But I made some decisions that led to me losing her, and I’ve painfully regretted that loss every single day since then.
The positive effect of that painful situation is that I got serious about figuring out why I’d made the decisions I’d made and why I’d treated someone I loved in ways that weren’t loving. I spent a lot of time, effort and money on therapy and contemplation — figuring out why I’d done the things I’d done.
I learned a lot of painful things about myself. I learned painful things about my relationships with my family. I faced ugly things in myself that I didn’t want to face. As a result, I made a lot of changes. I don’t feel like the same person I was then, at least in many ways.
In the email correspondence I was having with someone Saturday evening, she told me that she was afraid to tell me some of what she was doing, because she was afraid of me judging her and disapproving. I understood her fears. I couldn’t do anything other than admit she had been completely right about me doing those things in the past, so she had every reason to fear me doing them again now. I just reassured her — again — that I’ve learned and grown since I did those things. I told her to try and see, if she wanted to.
Has Jenny’s emotionally abusive husband changed? Will he be able to love her and treat her as she deserves if she takes him back? Have I really changed in the ways that I think I’ve changed? Do I really have the insight into certain ugly things about myself to avoid hurting someone I love?
The central question is whether we can really change. Because I like to think I’ve changed — and because I see changes in the ways I treat people these days — I might be biased to claim that we can, but my answer is a bit more nuanced than that. The truth is that the essential part of who we are doesn’t change. Any change that other people see is in how we learn to manage ourselves — how we learn to manage those ugly parts of ourselves that we don’t want to even look at.
When I think seriously about myself, I see a paradox. I’m the same person I was four years ago, but my thoughts and actions are very different. When I look inside my heart and mind and soul, I still see things I hate, things I’m ashamed of. But because I’m now honest with myself about what’s there, I can control and channel that part of me that used to judge and criticize someone I love.
I’m no different inside. I still have the same assets and flaws. But my actions and thoughts are different, because I’ve learned the truth about myself and can better balance the good and the bad.
For the first two questions, I’m confident that my actions have changed and that I know how to deal with the parts of myself that I don’t like. I call that change, because we’re ultimately judged by the ways in which we interact with others. We all have ugly parts inside us that we try not to show other people. More mature people have learned not to let those ugly parts affect the way they act, especially with the people they love.
What about the other question? Am I wrong to ask someone I once hurt to trust me again? And is Jenny wrong to be considering trusting her formerly abusive husband?
I don’t know that I can answer those questions. Jenny’s hurt was for many more years, but she believes he’s changed and she believes she’s changed, too. Is he a good risk? I have no idea. Jenny has to decide for herself. She might put herself into the position to be hurt again or she might be getting the loving soulmate she believes him to be. Only she can decide.
Am I a good risk for someone to trust, even though I hurt her emotionally in the past? I believe so, but it’s not a question I get to decide the answer to.
Change is difficult. It takes work. It takes time. It takes rebuilding of trust. Real change probably doesn’t happen that often. But when it does happen, it can change your world.