My friend Josh surprised me tonight.
“If it hadn’t been for marrying Michelle, I would’ve been just like my brother,” he said.
Josh isn’t a guy who’s prone to introspection or to pondering psychology, so his insight surprised me. I wondered why it had never occurred to me instead.
Josh has a brother who’s pretty strange. I’ve known Josh and his wife for more than 20 years, and I’ve seen him change and grow in ways that I don’t think he’s always aware of. He doesn’t seem to realize just how much he’s changed, but I see him as a radically different person.
His brother, Brian, has never married. He’s dated off and on — and he says he wishes he were married — but he’s never had a serious relationship. Today, Josh and Brian are radically different people. Josh is easy to get along with. Brian is prickly and difficult. Josh is great at compromise, but Brian has to have everything his way. Brian is very hard to like.
Until tonight, I hadn’t consciously realized that Josh marrying Michelle saved him from being the difficult man that his brother has become. And that’s left me thinking about how the partner we choose changes us in radical ways — for good or for bad.
As soon as Josh made this comparison and gave his wife credit for changing him, it immediately made sense to me. I told him that living alone allows a person to indulge his worst flaws, because there’s no one there to push back or to lovingly explain that we need to change some aspect of our behavior.
Brian and Josh grew up in identical circumstances and they learned the same dysfunctional behavior from their parents. But Josh has had Michelle making lots of little changes in him over the years — and they’ve now added up to big changes. (I assume he’s had some positive effects on her, too, but I don’t know her as well.)
When Michelle first started pushing back against some of Josh’s behavior and attitudes, he didn’t want to change. He was a bit annoyed. But he soon discovered that it was easier to make small changes in order to keep the peace and to make his wife happy.
After all those changes — after all these years — he looks back and is now grateful that she was there to help him change despite his desire to remain the same.
Brian never had that advantage. He’s been alone. He hasn’t been willing to change. His prickly and difficult ways have quickly chased away a number of women who were interested in him. He’s clueless about why this happened, but the end result is that he’s kind of a jerk without many friends.
Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine why a woman married me when I was 24. When I look at what I was at the time, I see plenty of potential and plenty of talent, but I also see someone who was full of himself. Even though our marriage eventually ended — in one of the friendliest divorces of all time — I think she and I both changed each other for the better.
Living alone brings out the worst in me. When I finally marry again, I will have to change some of my habits. I will have to keep my house cleaner. I’ll have to dress better at times. I’ll have to be less of a slob all around at home. Why?
Because the kind of woman I want wouldn’t put up with those things.
The woman I want will insist that we keep a clean house. She’ll insist that I pick up after myself better. She’ll insist that we live in a nicer neighborhood. She will have higher standards for me than I have for myself — and I want that.
Actually, I need that.
I’ve made the case before that the person we choose as a partner makes all the difference in what we become. The wrong person will bring you down to his or her level — maybe about living standards, maybe about bad habits, maybe about values, maybe about other things.
But the right person will elevate you in the aspects in which you know you’re weak. And you’ll elevate that person where he or she understands that growth is needed, too.
Having a partner isn’t just for companionship or for taking care of practical needs or for sex or any of those things. Not alone. Having a partner is about both people making the other a better person.
Every good marriage is a partnership of self-improvement. On our own — or with lousy partners — we will become victims of the worst traits that we’ve always had.