You think about adjusting to him, but can you adjust to YOU?
by Bina Breitner
When couples are having trouble, each person is aware of what bothers him or her about the other person: "He's emotionally distant." "She drinks too much, and gets nasty." "I can't stand his temper." "He cares more about his mother than he does about me." "He gets depressed and self-involved." "She is so controlling." I could fill a page with complaints I've heard — all valid.
What strikes me are two common mistakes. The first is believing you can change your partner. That's impossible. You can suggest, cajole, strategize, encourage, insist, weep or threaten, but only the other person can actually do the changing.
The second common mistake is trying to adapt without awareness of your own limits.
This one's less obvious, so let me give you an example. This case involves a woman dissatisfied with a relationship, but it could equally be a man.
Mary had grown up poor, on a farm in Oklahoma with five brothers and sisters, an exhausted mother, and a violent father. In her mother's generation, fewer people got divorced, so Mary never knew whether her mother had wondered about leaving her father. There wasn't any money, anyway, and six children had to be taken care of.
Mary was smart and energetic. Given her feisty temperament, she tended to talk back, plus she wanted to protect her younger siblings. She often got the belt. She was very happy to leave home after high school and go to the state college, where she did well.
She got a job, married a professional man... and discovered that he was an alcoholic and occasionally sadistic. She'd gone from the frying pan into the fire. It took her two years of intense emotional distress, but she divorced him. Since then, she'd made her way successfully in the working world. She'd barely escaped one mugging, but otherwise she'd been physically safe.
Now she was involved with Harold, an artistic man who cherished her — but he had a temper. When he blew, he stayed angry for up to an hour, and she wasn't sure what would set him off. He never hurt her, but he threw a chair once, which scared her.
Should she keep seeing him? They were very congenial in many ways, and she wasn't interested in most men her age (mid-50s). She was inclined to keep her eye on his many good qualities, and adjust. After all, he was well-intended, smart, tender-hearted, hard-working, affectionate and loyal. She figured men like that didn't grow on trees.
What Mary hadn't counted on were her own limits.
The reality was that Harold wasn't going to harm anyone. He never had. He certainly (consciously) didn't want to. His anger was untrustworthy, but his blow-ups were temporary, and someone else might have figured out a way to put up with them. But Mary's history and temperament made this relationship impossible for her. She couldn't be in the presence of any more shouting, rage or emotional violence.
Her decision didn't involve the morality of Harold's behavior, or even his mental health. He and she could have argued a long time about how important a factor his anger was. She could have said he did thus and such; he could have pointed out he'd never harmed a hair on anyone's head — he was just blowing off steam. He regretted it, but he wasn't really out of control.... They'd both have been right. But when it got down to the personal level, Mary was sensitized (by painful experience) to any violent energies. She had a choice now, which she hadn't had as a child, and she never wanted to be around "an angry man" again. Goodbye, Harold.
I know women whose husbands' sexual comments (about them and about other women) feel kind of lively and sexy. I know others — especially those who have been sexually abused in their youth — for whom any "objectifying" comment is upsetting: "It's so impersonal! He's talking about my body as if it were a thing put there to turn him on!"
Is the fellow bad for noticing and commenting on attractive women? What counts in this context is how the comments feel to his wife. She might find them sexy. But if they upset her, they're hurtful. She has limits. She might be able to train herself to react less, but she might not. And if she can't, he'd better pay attention — or she should leave him, not because of the comments themselves but because he doesn't care enough what they're doing to her. Who wants to hang around someone who doesn't honor how you feel?
And that's the crux. It doesn't matter who's right or wrong. Each person could be right for himself. A well-intended person can make a good-faith effort, but the other person is who she is, with her preferences, her history, her sensitivities.
There can be differences about geography — who likes what kind of landscape. I've known several couples who foundered on that rock. In fact, I'm one of them. After growing up in the Southwest and living in various countries, I found myself in frozen, mosquito-ridden, gray New England. Can you tell I disliked it? After almost 30 years, I returned to the Southwest, leaving a rich life and a good man. I simply could not stay any longer in that shadowy cold world. It didn't and doesn't make sense to him. He's not bothered by the climate. He tried to talk me into staying on. But I'd hit the wall. Fortunately, he's adapted.
There are morning people and night people. There are people who need a lot of solitude and others who need a group. There are people who mull things over and others who like to take action. There are people who can eat and drink anything and others who have sensitivities to fats or gluten or dairy or whatever.
People are different from each other, and that's the fun of it. Except when you're hooked up with someone whose differences are difficult for you to accommodate. Then the challenge is to look in the mirror — not at the other person — and ask yourself about your own limits.
Sometimes, if you're reacting to your own history, you can do a lot to calm your reactions. I had a client who found himself lying on the floor and crying when his wife got intensely angry at him. He was just that scared of his mother's anger in his childhood. Once he put the reaction together with the original environment, he responded less painfully to his wife — and he could finally listen to why she was angry instead of collapsing into fear. (She'd been waiting about seven years for him to hear her — part of why her anger had become intense.)
You can also help your partner clear up what's Then and what's Now. If you can't stay up late and your honey is a night owl, you can explain to him that you don't feel well the next day when you go to sleep late; that you need more sleep than he does; that you don't object to his being groggy in the morning so he should allow you the same flexibility at night.
If he still says he wants you to watch late movies with him, you're at one of those moments. Do you tell him again, more loudly, what you need, and start getting angry? Or do you say, "I love that you want me to watch movies with you, and I know it makes you feel loved and connected. I'm sorry my sleep rhythm doesn't offer you that. I wonder what else goes into this, because you're pressuring me and it feels as if you don't really see me."
It might turn out that his father was ill during his adolescence, and the nightly gathering around the TV with Mom and his brothers helped him avoid how lonely and scared he felt. He'd like you to provide the same consolation for something that happened years before.
Because you respect your own limits, you can stay clear. You're not turning yourself into a pretzel, trying to become a night owl. You're not taking his insistent request personally. You know your going to bed isn't "against" him; you just need your sleep. He has the problem, and you can be nice to him. Your limits and his needs are unrelated.
Being respectful of your own limits can be harder than it sounds. We're often taught that's selfish and inconsiderate. Or that whatever you can't tolerate is "normal," so you should adapt. Attending to your own limits might feel too "distant" to some people who like moving in a group, and they will get mad at you: "Who do you think you are, someone special?" Or they'll make you wrong: "We're just going out for a drink — are you such a wuss that you can't even do that?" There's a lot of pressure to conform, and insecure people feel more insecure if you're different from them.
It also might be difficult to know what your limits are if you haven't been around people who resemble you. Everybody else in your family is gregarious, but you need hours alone with your own thoughts or interests. Unless someone makes that OK, you'll try to blend in. If you weren't reassured as a youngster, you'll have to reassure yourself now (that being different is OK, that your preferences matter). That's not always easy, because you'll have to admit how lonely you felt all those years outside the group. By now, you've learned to dislike your own preference, because it led to emotional isolation.
The pitfall of trying to adapt beyond what's balanced for you is that you'll become resentful. In the short term, you're doing someone a favor if you adjust to him. In the long term, you're setting him (and yourself) up for disappointment and estrangement, because the fact is you do have limits. Everyone does. Pretending something doesn't matter to you is like false advertising, and pretty soon both you and he will realize it.
So look in the mirror and get to know yourself. Notice what makes you happy and what bothers you. What kind of temperament do you have? What's your rhythm in the world? What do you think about when you're not thinking about anything? Take yourself seriously. It's the only honest way to consider sharing yourself with another person.
Bina Breitner, MA, is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in private practice in Tucson. She can be reached by phone at (520) 820-7930 or (575) 538-4380, by Skype at bina.breitner, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.