Marital Myths: I Thought I Could Change Him/Her

Chemistry Compromises Clarity: We meet, we spark and we bond. What are the variables that allow folks to desire attaching themselves to someone? Physical attraction is a pretty heady draw but if met with an unappealing personality, a “dud” may not sustain its spark. There are many additional sources of attachment attraction. “We have fun together!” is a popular one. Another endearing but sometimes misleading refrain is “We hung out with the same crowd,” or “All our friends were getting married.” “It seemed like the natural next step.” A personal favorite is “We shared the same values,” often spoken by a couple who actually talked about important life issues before uttering marriage vows. The opposites attract motif, nowadays referred to as the Yin-Yang of choices, draws on the allure of difference, the exotic, the intrigue of mystery, of “otherness” which can serve well to broaden our thinking, our worldliness and tolerance. Or it may simply imply extrovert/introvert, a very popular duo, one the outgoing life of the party; the other, shy, more socially cautious and both benefiting from the other’s style, when that dyad works well.

Sameness: On the other side of the attraction coin is the couple that relishes “sameness.” Similar religious upbringing remains an essential qualification for many Coupledoms. Or alma maters, or shared best friend couples. In combination with physical attraction, this can be a slam dunk for many. Yet sameness can be deceiving when based on just one or two variables or stunting the growth as individuals when relied upon for bonding success.

Psychological Attractions Sneak In: Then there are the subtle messages that sneak in but often don’t get expressed, or even identified until later, much later. These are the psychological attractions, the lure of the knight in shining armor whose unconscious desire is to rescue a damsel in distress. The male or female heart drawn to the role of healing the suffering one: how many nurses in war movies marry their patients? Is it just convenience? Partly, but also the heady pleasure in saving a life or a need to feel powerfully important and crucial to someone’s survival. The adrenaline laced excitement of conquering the player, the flirt, the one no one else could rein in, both affirming one’s power and appeal as well as sexual triumph over competitors. “I won.” Strutting off arm and arm with a trophy that validates superiority, to counter fears of its opposite. Sometimes the very feature that hurt so much in childhood,  the aloof and distant manner of an otherwise kind parent can be the very feature that seals the deal in adult mating, the child’s heart unconsciously vowing to change the adult version of the distant parent into someone warm, affirming and adoring.

Chronological & Contextual Based Choices: A plethora of externals jump start bonding such as time running out, the big hand of the biological clock drawing nearer to its last tick, someone going off to war, the “misery loves company” appeal of common professions, shared educational challenges, or just wanting to get out of the parental abode.

Identification & Idealization: Common family histories of dysfunction provide a strong directional toward partner selection. Perhaps identifying with the pain suffered by the other, can form hefty bonds of loyalty and mutual protection, with some couples making wonderfully healthy and conscious choices to be a “different sort of family,” working jointly to accomplish that end. Or the appeal of the older, more experienced and idealized partner who is worshiped and adored by a less experienced mate. Oh to be worshiped. Oh to be protected. Do these roles last? Perhaps. Do the positions remain static? Not usually. The mature just get older, and the younger, worshiping ones, get mature. Oops. The Coupledom that outlasts these maturational changes is indeed a strong, flexible and compatible pair.

So Many Roads to marital mergers, neither good nor bad. Just human. Variables that can be normal, natural or complicating if not understood and owned. There is no pure pairing. We come to each other with wants, a context in which multiple needs thrive and compete, and though we love, we may love for many reasons. The more we understand about our love, and its many tributaries, over time, the more honest the love, and the quicker the stumbling blocks to its success can be negotiated.

The Myths: The chemical potency of these variables when mixed together may at times overpower judgment and lead to denial of the presence of what could be the fatal flaw in the brew. Many a patient has mumbled these words “I thought I could change him.” Or “I thought she would change.” That marital myth that can render even the most intelligent of souls short-sighted and misguided is the strongly held belief, often unspoken and perhaps even subconscious, that the partner has the power to change that portion of their mate’s make up that is worrisome. What underlies that desire, motivates that conclusion, or greases the pathways to that denial is worthy of exploration.

Reworking History: Often I find individuals from families of addiction, significant emotional or medical challenges pursuing what remained unattainable in their childhood, the power to make someone they love change out of love for them. The set up is clear. Marry someone who has many wonderful qualities but has one significant weakness, perhaps a tendency to over imbibe, play around, gamble or invest in dreams rather than realities. Or someone with a mood disorder or depression, unacknowledged but clearly not a happy soul, or perhaps medically compromised. Having failed as a child to bring the beloved parent to another place, or the family, reworking that scenario in adulthood becomes an unconscious force in marital selection. “Undoing” the feelings of powerlessness from childhood, by rewriting history, this time empowered as an adult, at the helm, navigating The Coupledom ship towards marital bliss. O.K. now we have a motive. What allows this delusion to get past rational thinking?

Magical Thinking: At the heart of self-deception is “magical thinking” – that childlike defense that Disney’s Cinderella  sang of in her bed chamber, “A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep…no matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep believing the dream that you wish will come true.” Or as that heartbreakingly sweet little insect Jiminy Cricket crooned in Pinocchio, “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you.” Really? Just like that?

The Child’s Dream In My Office: No one is above harboring a child’s dream stuck to one’s adult heart. I am host to many adult children in my office who break my heart, frankly, when we reveal the child’s dream, still intact, residing in their bewildered adult heart sitting across the room from me. “But I thought I could…” “What I never could do as a kid…” “What my dad/mom failed to do, I thought I could do.” “My love was never enough to make dad happy… To stop Mom’s drinking… To end the fighting… I was compelled, unknowingly, to make happy the world in which I grew, now that it was my world to do it…”

Grieving The Dreams That Didn’t Come True: Where does one go when the revised edition of childhood breaks down just like the original did and all the love in the world, the good deeds, demands and manipulations failed to change the beloved in the image desired by their partner? When the player turns into the cheater? When the addict can’t be saved? When the idol falls off the pedestal? One goes to grieving, saying adios to dreams that were based on a child’s wishes, decent wishes, but wishes nonetheless. And then to realistic assessment. Who is this person I chose to love, save or change? What part of me made that choice? And now what can I do to work with reality? Work on allowing grief and pain from the past to make its appearance, sort it out and see its’ connection to the present disappointment, forgiving yourself along the way for allowing the child to determine an important part of adult decision-making.

A Viable Coupledom Or A Solo Recovery: At this point, if The Coupledom is still viable, then a new chapter can be possible. If not, then a solo journey to perhaps a more realistic and fulfilling new love. But no delusions. We cannot change the people we love, no matter how much we love them. We can change ourselves by flushing out the dreams, comforting our child’s broken heart, and committing to what the adult in us truly values and asking of another if they can join in respecting those values as well.

A Third Party: This is a big job, so call in an expert, a psychotherapist,  couples therapist, someone who can keep you, and if it’s still viable, your Coupledom, on a course that gets you to the next realistic stop along life’s emotional highway.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011

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