You’re not going to like the answer … but you need to know it for a healthy relationship.
“Will he ever change?”
Alexandra asked me as she nervously bit her lip.
We had been talking about her boyfriend for the past 20 minutes of our session together and his tendency to overdo it with the booze, spiral into rage and anger, say terrible things he later regretted, have no memory of these events and then offer a dismissive apology the next day and then tell her she needed to “Move on, ‘cause that’s in the past.”
Alexandra has been on this emotional roller coaster with her boyfriend for over 3 years and it was starting to become evident that this was more than a pattern. Beyond being a functional addict her boyfriend was both verbally abusive and emotionally unavailable. And somewhere in her, she knew it.
But Alexandra was stuck.
They lived together, had good relationships with each other’s families and shared many good times when he wasn’t drunk or emotionally abusive. She loved him, but she hated being on this endless rollercoaster of his emotional outbursts and feeling like she was constantly walking on eggshells whenever he drank because anything could set him off.
The immediate answer to her question “Will he ever change?” was obviously “ I don’t know.”
(As much as I wish things were different sometimes, I’m a therapist, not a fortune teller.)
But I do know enough that I could tell Alexandra the longer answer. She didn’t like it. Chances you won’t either … but it’s important to know.
The long answer is “It depends.”
In Alexandra’s situation, there were a lot of variables at play and I would never suggest that one person could or should set out to change another. Not only is it impossible, it’s disrespectful to assume anyone should change to suit your standards.
But, all relationships take work. And it’s up to the people in the to decide if the work is worth doing and if enough of their needs are getting met in order to stay. It was clear that Alexandra’s needs had not been getting met for a long time and given past attempts to discuss her concerns, it was clear that that her boyfriend didn’t intend to change.
But she did have one huge thing in her control –– how she treated herself.
The truth is, nothing she could do would changer her boyfriend. But she could change how she treated herself, and model to him that she loved and valued herself. Now she was intrigued. Alexandra had an anxious attachment style (as does roughly 20% of the American population); which made her prone to being overly sensitive to her boyfriend’s behaviors. She often took far more than her share of responsibility for their arguments, became anxious when she knew he was upset, and generally prioritized the relationship over her personal needs.
This made her connection with her boyfriend, who had an avoidant attachment style (as does >25% of the American population), almost magnetic. He was prone to being self absorbed, lacking awareness of the needs of others, and prioritizing his own preferences over the needs of the relationship. He had little interest in changing or improving their relationship as it worked fine to suit his needs. So why would he change?
If they were going to have a healthy relationship they were both going to have to change. Yet she was the only one in counseling. What choice did she have? The choice to get emotionally and psychologically healthy herself and repeatedly make decisions that aligned with that.
And to implement actions and behaviors that she valued herself, required respect, and chose to spend her time and energy with people that treated her well.
It definitely wasn’t a quick fix … but it’s the only option she had if she wanted to see real change.
The truth is it takes time, often a lot of time for people that are used to dysfunctional patterns in relationships to believe that they deserve to be treated well and start living in alignment with that.
But it is possible.
Attachment styles can change over time. Here are the things that change them:
While it’s possible for someone to change from avoidant to anxious they would first need to become secure and then over time have or find a partner that is avoidant themselves to cause them to become more emotionally available in an anxious way.
Long story short? We’re all wired for attachment, one way or another.
And are therefore impacted by the moods and behaviors of the people we are closest too. You can’t change them, but you can teach people how to treat you by being very conscious of how you treat yourself. If you sacrifice your needs for the benefit of others and prioritize their preferences over yours, expect them to do the same. After all you’ve shown that your needs don’t really matter. How could you expect them to do anything else?
If you truly want someone to change, first consider how you can change. Not because it will change them, but because it can change you and from there you can have clarity on where to best invest your energy and effort. Life is too short to stay in bad relationships.
Are you stuck in an ugly dynamic like Alexandra and having a hard time seeing a way out? I’d love to help you.
Take the Love Style quiz to find out your own attachment style and how you show up in relationships.