PQ 24.6 — Is there anything about this person I’m hoping will change?
As I wrote in another recent installment of this series, I grew up as essentially a social chameleon. A person who could get along with a wide variety of people. And blending in was an attitude that followed me into the way that I had romantic and sexual relationships, once those things came into the picture.
Once I started to date, I prided myself on being able to make any relationship work, regardless of our natural compatibility. I was good at compromise, self-sacrifice. Fantastic at tucking away my core principles when it was convenient to do so. If they conflicted with someone else’s.
At the time, this seemed like the best way to live happily ever after when it came to love. Shape shifting. Twisting myself like a pretzel to match whatever my partner seemed to want (a template I’d glean from careful observation or listening and failing that, demand it from them), regardless of that image’s distance from who I really was.
But inevitably I’d end up unhappy. Because I was so out of touch with what I wanted… I’d spent all my attention and focus and work on being the other person’s ideal partner, I had no clue what it was that I wanted for myself. So while I could make my partners happy, I could never make myself happy. Sure, I wasn’t alone. But I was often stuck with a person who made me feel like I was alone, who often didn’t really get me or understand me, and probably wouldn’t have wanted to be with me if they knew who I really was, under my various façades.
But as I look back now, I see that I wasn’t the only person that made this pattern of behavior possible. I was bolstered by partners who were essentially my opposite: A person who was really in touch with what they wanted but fairly oblivious to what the other person wanted or needed. As some of these folks spent time as first my friend and only later my lover, I often got to see behind the curtain… to get an idea of their personal philosophies re: love and relationships that they’d share openly with people they didn’t consider romantic prospects (a development that would often surprise us both later, in hindsight).
And I clearly remember speaking to my then-friend, now-ex-girlfriend and getting her outlook: You pick someone who has most of the qualities you want, and then you change them, she would say. Everyone’s a fixer upper. No one really comes the way you want them, not at factory default settings. And the people who are alone are the ones who look at people and see what they are now. But don’t see the possibilities. What they could be.
And even before we dated one another, I saw this pattern in action as she dated others (mostly men at the time) and would consistently struggle against them to get them to cede territory. And later, to change. A mix of little changes and big ones both. She leveraged everything she had. She’d fight dirty. And as her friend, I got a front row seat to all of it.
I should have run away from that ugliness, but I, too, eventually ran directly into it. Sitting here two decades later, I ask myself why I ever put up with it. It would be absurd to the person I am now, unthinkable, to rush into the arms of someone who played games. Cheated on every partner she ever had, often lied to her lovers, and pitted people against one another.
The woman I am today wouldn’t go anywhere near a mess like that.
But in those days, I was drawn to confidence in a way that was unlike anything else. I needed to be around people who made quick decisions, even if they were selfish ones that only benefited them, or even ones that harmed me. Because I was uncertain about everything. Lost at sea.
Other people’s confidence — and yes, even their selfishness — was like oxygen. A vital resource that I couldn’t produce on my own. But that I needed to emotionally survive.
And I guess part of me felt that if I could just be close to people who were confident that maybe some of it would rub off on me, too.
I don’t know. But it didn’t work out that way. I stayed just as uncertain as ever. Adrift. And twisting myself into whatever they needed me to be at any given moment.
It was like that with her.
A lot has happened in the two decades since then. The past 10 years in particular have been instrumental in shaping my identity, finding my voice, becoming secure and confident on my own terms for the first time. It hasn’t always been pretty, but I now have a good sense of who I am. What I want. And where I’m going.
I’ve finally found my confidence. But curiously, I don’t resemble the confident lovers of my past. The ones who were so focused on what they wanted that they never stopped to consider what the person they’re with wants or needs. I’m deeply concerned about the people close to me. And I try very hard to be an easy person to talk to, someone who it’s easy to tell difficult truths.
And I can’t imagine approaching a potential partner as though they were a renovation project. A “fixer upper” as that ex once said.
That said, can you hope something about your partner will change without it being unhealthy? Probably. I don’t think all hopes of this nature are inherently unhealthy. I think they can come from a good place.
But these days, I prefer to take people as they are.