The box looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember what it had been used for. I was cleaning out a 9’x12′ section of an unused room at home Saturday that I’m converting into a video studio. So I was opening a lot of things that haven’t been opened lately.
It was the original artwork for something I had made and printed for an ex-girlfriend. I have trouble throwing things way that I’ve made, even after the sentiment expressed in the piece no longer applies, but it’s been long enough now that it was time to throw it away without regrets.
This left me thinking about a woman who I almost married. There were actually two women during that period who I almost married. I backed out of both and the end of each relationship was messy. As I looked at this piece that I had lovingly made for one of them back then, I could only find myself thinking how lucky I had been that I didn’t marry her. I had dodged a bullet. (She probably did, too.)
It suddenly hit me that my life would have been radically different with each of the women I’ve ever considered marrying. With this one, I would have been something different than I would have been with that one — and even more different than what I’d be with that one over there.
We like to think that we’re going to be whoever we’re going to be — and the people we choose to bring into our lives are just additions. But that’s not true. Every person we choose to live with changes who we are, whether we recognize that or not.
If you take a chemical and add another chemical to it, the resulting mix can be life-giving medicine. If you take the same chemical and add a different chemical to it, the result is deadly poison.
It’s the same way with people. Every person we can choose is a catalyst — and that catalyst added to what we are changes who we are in fundamental ways.
I like to think I’m going to be exactly the same person, no matter who I end up with, but I’m fooling myself. And even if I end up without what I wanted — and even if that result makes me someone I didn’t want to be — we have a habit of accepting change we didn’t want, simply because we see it as inevitable. (For fascinating recent research that shows how we accept things which we hate but believe are inevitable, see this BBC story.)
When you say, “I could never accept a man who treats me this way,” or, “I could never accept a woman who has those values,” you are fooling yourself. If you believe you have to put up with it — once you’re “stuck with someone” — you will find the reasons you need to accept that, even if your “old self” would have been disgusted with you.
The other person’s decisions and norms shape the reality in which you live. As you become accustomed to what that person is and what that person wants, you change yourself. You change your values. You accept things you wouldn’t have previously accepted. You value things which wouldn’t have seemed important with anyone else.
Bit by small bit, your course is changed. You are changed — for good or bad.
You shape how another person’s life goes. You shape how he uses his talents and time — in the same way he shapes you. It’s inevitable. This one decision of who to choose changes everything for you — not to mention what your children will become.
And that brings us to something which happened to a family — including four young girls — in a rural county near Montgomery, Ala., late Saturday afternoon.
A woman stopped at a home to pick up her four children from the man who she was in the process of divorcing. He met her at the door and killed her with a shot to the head. Then he lined up his four girls — a 13-year-old and three 12-year-old triplets — and shot them multiple times as he was pouring gasoline around the house.
The 13-year-old immediately escaped without being shot, but all three of the triplets were shot multiple times. (Two of them escaped despite being shot and will undergo more surgery.) Then the man lit the house on fire and shot himself.
What sort of evil could possibly cause this? It makes my soul hurt that we do such things to each other.
This might seem like an extreme example, but when you choose to connect your life to someone else’s, you are choosing that person at his or her worst. Nobody starts a relationship thinking that someone will kill him or her. Nobody starts a relationship thinking that person might kill their children. But people regularly start relationships — and continue relationships — when they know they’re ignoring red flags that could lead to disaster and unhappiness.
There’s a flip side to all of this. The right partner can change both of you for the better. A 2017 study which I just found this week says that having a supportive partner can set you up for greater success. Experiments with 163 couples predicted which were the most supportive about challenges. When researchers followed up with the couples six months later, they found that the couples tagged as having supportive spouses — those who pursued the tougher experimental problems in the lab — had more personal growth, more happiness, better relationships and better overall psychological well-being than the others.
In other words, having the wrong partner is something you’ll come to accept because you see it as inevitable — and having the right partner is something that will improve the lives and happiness of both of you.
When I look at that artwork which I created for someone 10 years ago — the stuff I found in the box Saturday — I realize very clearly that she and I would have been terrible for each other. She would have made me someone I didn’t want to be and I would have done the same for her — and we would have both accepted it because of that one-time choice.
Instead, we went our separate ways. She’s married now and seems happy. I’m not happy alone, but at least I’m not saddled with someone who was wrong for me and would have kept me from the right partner.
I like that old artwork that I did for her, but I’ve moved on from that wrong choice. The box ended up in the trash — where it belongs.