The brutal truth is that people rarely change how they treat others — no matter how much they plead and beg and promise to change their ways.
I get a lot of email from people seeking relationship advice. I think it’s because I’ve written quite a bit about love — often documenting my own mistakes — and many people just want to tell their stories to an unbiased stranger who doesn’t know anybody involved. I often get the idea that these hurting people know what they need to do, but it makes them feel better to tell me.
I don’t have time to respond to most of these emails, but I often find myself wishing I could sit down with these women — they’re almost always women — and talk with them for an hour or so. What most of them seem to need to hear is simple: “He’s almost certainly not going to change. Not now. Not next year. Never, no matter what he says when he’s scared that he’s about to lose you.”
I heard from a woman Monday who’s facing a choice between two men — a man she’s been living with for years and another guy who she knew in the past — and she’s torn about what to do. Although her story is personal and unique to her, it’s typical of much of what I hear.
Without giving away any details about her, of course, I want to share the two fundamental points that I shared with her last night — because these are factors in almost every relationship question that comes up when people write.
Most people who are thinking about leaving a long-term partner feel very guilty. By the time they write to me, they’ve usually had some serious conversations with the existing partner. Sometimes, the partner reacts with anger at first, but it almost always turns to pleading and begging quickly. When the partner realizes what he’s about to lose, he’s willing to promise anything.
Typically, partners will claim to have seen the light and promise to change. They will promise to fix all the things you’ve been trying to get them to understand for years. Although they showed no desire to change when there were no consequences, they are suddenly willing to change in the ways you’ve been wanting.
Your first reaction will be hopeful.
“Oh, he finally understands how much he’s been hurting me by [whatever he’s been doing],” you think.
It’s a relief. You feel vindicated. You feel as though he’s finally listening to what you’ve been saying for a long time.
He might immediately do something that you didn’t expect. He might clean the house. He might bring you flowers. He might pay attention to what you’re saying. He might go to church with you. He might thank you for all you’ve been doing. He might do whatever you’ve been begging him to do.
He’ll do that at first. Maybe for a week. Maybe for a few weeks. It varies.
But here’s the truth. Unless he changes whatever core issues made him act that way in the first place, he is not going to change. He will be able to force himself to exhibit the behavior you want for a little while — but his true nature will eventually come out again once he’s satisfied you’re not about to leave.
This doesn’t mean he was lying when he promised to change. He had good intentions. He simply doesn’t know how to change. The way he’s been treating you represents the person he truly is. Unless there is fundamental change in him — which is very unlikely without serious long-term therapy — he’s not going to be able to sustain the “reform act.”
When someone promises to change — and is incredibly hurt when he believes he’s about to lose you — you will feel terribly guilty. He will tell you how much he needs you. He will tell you that the two of you are eternally bound. He will tell you all sorts of nonsense which is driven by his fear of losing you.
A person such as this will almost always have some excuse, either spoken or unspoken. He came from a bad family. He father mistreated him. Other kids made fun of him in school. There are a million variations and most of them have some truth to them.
But here’s the thing. You are not responsible for fixing him. You are not responsible for where he came from. It’s up to him to have the guts to seek help and get serious about changing the core issues which have made him treat you in the ways he has been. Yes, he might be a sad character when he’s about to lose you and he might have “a good heart,” but you owe it to yourself to have a relationship with someone who is emotionally healthy enough to have a good relationship.
If a man is broken in some fundamental way, that is an indication that he needs to seek help. It’s not an indication that you owe him another two years — or five years or whatever — of your life while he continues to treat you badly and promise to change.
The fact that his life might not have been perfect — and that he might not have been taught how to treat others — doesn’t make it OK for you to pay the price for his problems. You have no reason to feel guilty about walking away from him, even if he begs, even if he’s hurting or if you share a child.
His past behavior is the best predictor of how he’s going to treat you and his family in the future. Remember that.
The other issue that people tend to have is a feeling they’ve invested too much time in a relationship to give up on it now. This will frequently cause you to make a bad decision, because you’re falling for the “sunk cost fallacy.”
In the world of business, a sunk cost is something you’ve already invested which you can’t recover no matter what decision you make today. For instance, if you’ve lost $100,000 a year on a business for five years, your losses are sunk cost. You’re not getting that money back no matter what, unlike residual value of equipment that can be sold used.
If you’ve lost half a million dollars over five years, does that mean you ought to stick around in a losing situation so you can lose another $100,000 or more in each of the coming years? Of course not. That prior investment is immaterial to the decision you have to make now.
The question you face — whether it’s a business or a relationship — is what the future is likely to bring. If something has radically changed and there’s a reason to believe your business has turned the corner or that a relationship is really different, maybe you have a legitimate reason to give it more time. But in almost all cases, the past shows you exactly what you have to expect from your future.
The most important thing you can do for yourself is to get emotionally healthy — and that’s something that can take a lifetime of work. If you’ve made the decision to put up with being treated badly in the past, you need to deal with that — and make sure you’re ready to insist that your future relationships are between two healthy people, neither of whom forces the other to put up with the sort of dysfunctional treatment you have endured from someone else.
Every now and then, somebody actually reforms himself and truly changes. It’s definitely possible. But it’s very, very unlikely. It’s a terrible bet.
You have a responsibility to yourself to be the best person you can be. You also have a responsibility to be the best partner you can be. But you also have a responsibility to yourself — and to your children or future children — to expect an emotionally healthy partner who can do his part in your life. If you don’t do that, your kids are going to grow up seeing you model an unhealthy relationship — and how do you think this behavior gets passed along from generation to generation?
Love is tough. Making a relationship stable and healthy is even tougher. But if you stay with someone who is wrong for you or is mistreating you — because you feel guilty or you worry that you’ve already invested too much time — you’re wasting your life.
You’re going to have far more regrets about the time you wasted staying with someone who’s not going to change than you ever will worrying about whether your taking care of yourself is going to hurt him.
You deserve someone who will love you and treat you in an emotionally healthy way. And if you don’t think you deserve that, you have some fundamental issues in yourself that you need to work on.
Take care of yourself (and your children if you have them). You deserve to be loved and treated well. Trust me on this.