As soon as my friend Leah started dating a new guy two years ago, there were red flags. His actions made him appear arrogant, selfish, ungrateful and callous. But Leah put up with him. He makes a lot of money. He’s good looking. And he can be charming when he wants to be.
Leah has spent most of the last two years complaining about him and trying to change him. I try not to give people advice unless they ask for it, so I’ve listened without telling her what I really think of her ongoing drama.
I warned her in the beginning about what the guy is really like. From the first time he showed his true colors — before she was committed — I pointed out the issues. But Leah chose him anyway. She saw only what she wanted to see. So I kept my mouth shut.
Late Tuesday afternoon, I heard a therapist talk on a podcast about listening to a man complain viciously about his long-term partner. The therapist had finally heard enough, so he interrupted the man.
“Hey, dude” he said. “You got the pizza you ordered. OK?”
And I suddenly realized what Leah needed to hear.
I called Leah tonight and told her the story from the therapist. I expanded on what he told the man and I showed her how the same lesson applies to her.
She knew what this guy was when she chose him. She quickly saw all the bad things that all of her friends saw. But she continues to choose him — every day, every week, every month — now that she’s deeply into a dysfunctional relationship with him.
You can blame the other person in a relationship if he or she lies to you or hides something about himself or herself. At least, in the beginning. You can blame the other person when he or she first disappoints you. But if you continue to choose that person, the other person is no longer the issue.
You are the problem — because you keep choosing someone who is going to give you exactly what you know to expect. If you order pizza with pepperoni and anchovies one time, it’s perfectly reasonable to complain about the terrible pizza you’ve tried, assuming you don’t like it. Nobody will blame you. But if you keep ordering what you know you hate, it’s your fault.
Staying with someone who is wrong for you is no different. You can’t complain. It’s not the other person’s fault for being whatever he or she is. You know what you’re getting, but you keep ordering it.
The brutal truth is that your partner isn’t going to change. With extremely rare exceptions, human beings don’t change these sorts of habits once they’re adults. Your job in choosing a partner isn’t to find someone to change. Your job is to find someone who is committed to being what you want and need. If you choose someone who wants to be something other than that, it’s your fault — not the other person’s fault.
When I talked with Leah about all this tonight, something clicked inside for her. She didn’t like what she heard. She didn’t like that some things were suddenly clear. But it finally made sense that her boyfriend isn’t her problem.
She is her own problem. Her own choices. And her refusal to take responsibility for her choices and make a change.
I don’t know whether she’ll change anything. She didn’t make any promises. I’m not sure she has the courage to do what she needs to do. She’s too bound up in the fantasy of what she wanted him to be. And she feels as though she has too much invested in him to “throw it all away now.”
But she understands intellectually what the problem is. As we got off the phone, she went back to the therapist’s pizza metaphor.
“I’ve got to quit ordering the same horrible pizza,” she said. “Otherwise, I’m going to be stuck with something I hate for life — and it will be my fault.”
You’ll go crazy if you think you can change a man. Or a woman.