Women of a certain age holding out for happily ever after


“Darling you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go.”

— The Clash


What to do if a man stacks up with too many negatives?

Of all the checklists, this is the most difficult, because the chances are your heart is already hooked. Only you can decide whether to throw in the towel. This entails guessing the unknowable future of whether our significant other is willing or able to change, and whether we ourselves are willing or able to change the way we view the relationship and/or the way we relate to him.

The next line from the classic song above is as follows: “If you say that you are mine/ I’ll be here ’til the end of time.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Stan Tatkin, a neurobiologist whose books are reviewed on this website, holds that declarations such as this can be a key to helping you make your decision. He says that such “security” reassurances provide a basis to form what he calls “anchor” relationships, as opposed to “island” or “wave” unions.

But what if you’ve reached what appears to be an impasse, or your partner has no interest in putting in effort to improve your relationship? At least four roads to change originate with you. You can opt for a change of scenery, most obviously by leaving; by shifting your focus away from your partnership discomfort and onto your own life, and third, by viewing the negatives in the relationship as, well, less negative.

The fourth road holds a lot of promise. According to many of the scientists and therapists reviewed here, seemingly small changes in behavior — by you — can make a huge difference. Many of the books advocate and spell out unilateral steps you can take that you partner is bound to react to, presumably in a positive fashion.

Expecting your partner to change by nagging is probably a waste of time. Western conventional wisdom holds that no one can make another person change. But there are other points of view. Some Buddhist philosophy says that if you haven’t seen someone in 20 minutes, you’re speaking to a different person altogether. In this philosophy, we all change, but still, we can’t make someone change to suit our specifications.

And really, aren’t we all influenced by one another? A meme holds that we’re as rich, thin, healthy, etc. as the average of our five closest friends, and it’s not because of self-selection; it’s because we influence each other, according to this theory.

Perhaps we do influence each other more than we realize, by every word we speak and each action that we take, but if so, it is mostly by example, seldom by direct request, and certainly not by browbeating, which generally triggers guilt and shame, which in turn trigger compensatory and retaliatory stubbornness and false pride. This is human nature.

Al-Anon spouses will tell you that no matter how much they begged the partner to stop using, it was to no avail. Often, the addict or alcoholic will change only after the non-addict partner has begun the process of detaching.

Even among people who are not addicted, trying to make a lover change against his or her will can spell the end of the relationship. That may not be a bad thing, depending on how bad things are, and in some cases it’s a good thing and even the best possible outcome.

But what if you want to stick it out? Can people really change? Personally, I believe they can, but like the proverbial light bulb, they must be both willing and able.

People who in knee jerk fashion dismiss 12-step groups, spiritual practices, therapists and marriage counseling are rigid or scared, and certainly not willing, and their corner will never shine with enlightenment. Some people have an enormous capacity for suffering and choose misery rather than swallow their false pride and face the uncertainty of change. Not until the student is ready will the teacher appear, and sadly, that day may never come.

Even if someone does agree to “change,” remember, that process can take years. Neurons can and do rewire until the day we die, but science shows that certain behaviors can take years of practice to overcome.

This checklist has very few questions.

  1. If the relationship were to continue this way for the rest of your life, would you want to stay?
  2. Are you willing to go through the pain of the split? Is the pain of staying greater than the pain of leaving?

Factors that have helped me through a breakup…

No. 1 How is he on compromise? Is it his way or the highway? Does he have the willingness to work out problems? An ex-boyfriend of mine complained that relationships were “too much work.” Not surprisingly, his didn’t, including the one with me. If you are willing to put in the “work” for someone you love, then you deserve someone who’s willing to put in the “work” for you too.

No. 2 Does he delight in doing things to piss you off? Does he even joke about it? That’s age-appropriate for toddlers and twelve-year-olds, but not grown men. Volunteer at a Big Sister program instead, or check out the help wanted ads for babysitters.

No. 3 Does he have the inner strength to agree to counseling? If not, the problem is his, not yours. His reasons are irrelevant. If he’s not willing to look in the mirror for you, then he hasn’t been willing for anyone else either, and the truth is, we do this for ourselves, not for our significant others. He may have a huge fear of what he’s going to find, and even worse, those fears may be rooted in reality.

No. 4 Does he talk to you like a South Park character? Does he mock men who are openly kind to their wives? Think you should excuse his hard shell? Think again. Even if there’s a poetic, sensitive soul underneath, which is doubtful, you won’t be the muse to his inner Robert Burns. A related behavior is belittling a woman’s ideas. Either he’s jealous you came up with it first, or he’s repeating what authority figures did to his ideas, or he just doesn’t like the idea of a woman having an idea.


No. 5 Does he take pride in bad behavior from his youth? The word exploit has two meanings: when used as a noun, it means a feat or deed that is noble. When used as a verb, however, it means to take advantage of someone. Be careful, very careful, when a man recollects with much mirth his youthful sexual “exploits,” when in fact those exploits were really about exploiting women. We live in a world of pervasive misogyny, and many men confuse relationships with a blood sport. If he exploited women then, and still laughs about it today, guess who’s next in line?


If You See Something, Say Something

Courage is not my strong suit, but last night I let some show, and I’m glad I did. I gave a piece of my mind to a complete stranger who was loudly and publicly berating his female partner. It was at the local health food store, which is not where I’d expect to see...

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