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‘My Boyfriend Refuses to Change’

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Dear Polly,

I love my slightly selfish boyfriend. Two years ago, I fell hard and fast for his independent streak, his cool and mysterious disposition, and his thick shell and mushy center. I still love those things about him, but in the midst of this horrible year, I am now encountering a strange new feeling about him that I wasn’t expecting — resentment.

In our early days, even with rose-colored glasses on, I knew that there were downsides to my boyfriend’s independence and that I might have to battle for his time and affection. I also knew that these qualities I adored, often masquerading as a Paul Bunyan–esque manliness, might instead be a convenient way for him to set boundaries and seek space without having to confront or negotiate or compromise or communicate with me in any real kind of way. Still, I felt strong enough to embrace him as he is, and made sure to make my needs known, too, which hasn’t always been my strong suit. He was able to adjust somewhat, though it often seemed like an obligation to him.

That brings us to this hellish year. Like so many others, my boyfriend and I have been tested by an endless series of personal and global traumas. To cope, he has withdrawn more than ever. He criticizes minute things about me, like the way I organize the dresser or how I sing in the shower. He stopped making an effort to see me, even though we’re a short car ride away from one another, while he drops everything to visit his friends. I tried to calmly tell him how these things make me feel, but he shuts down at the first whiff of conflict. During our last argument, he exasperatedly told me that he does not love people the way others do, and that if his love wasn’t enough for me, then I should leave. That gutted me. It gutted me as someone who routinely (and sometimes to a fault) treats the needs of my partner as important as my own. It gutted me as a textbook team player who feels silly and downright foolish for picking a teammate who would rather play the game alone, or perhaps with someone else.

When I cooled down, I started to wonder whether he was right all along. My parents ask me why I would work so hard for someone who doesn’t appear to work for me anymore, particularly in a global pandemic when our (and our partner’s) most important priorities become clear. They also worry that the other, fraught relationships in his life (he has a very difficult relationship with his parents, for example) is just a bad omen of what I can expect with him down the line. Despite all this, I truly believe he loves me still, as I do him. But for the first time, I’m seriously questioning whether or not to stay.

Clear-Colored Glasses
Dear Clear-Colored Glasses,

Dump him. He’s not just letting you know that he’s not that romantic and doesn’t really want to prioritize you in his life — now or ever. He’s also letting you know that he’s inflexible, has no interest in changing for you, refuses to take your input on his behavior, and isn’t open to the notion that you might see things that he can’t see or know things that he doesn’t know.

Think about what that means. He thinks he knows what’s best for him. He believes that very few things that you bring to the table will be valuable to him. He’s not curious about what you think could help, or how you think he might grow in ways that would make him happier. He is not open to changing. He doesn’t care what you want more or less of. He’s saying, “Here’s what you get, take it or leave it.”

But he’s also not saying, “I’m dissatisfied with you” or “I feel restless” or “I’m depressed but I’m feeling self-protective and avoidant about it.”

What he’s saying is “I will stay with you forever, as long as you accept me for exactly as I am at this moment, don’t complain about anything I do, and never ask me to change a thing.” This not only means that he doesn’t want a real human partner. It also means that he doesn’t want to be a real human — at least not in the way that you or I would define it. I mean, God bless the man. He can live however he wants. Mad respect for a human who knows exactly what he wants and stands up for it. I’m not kidding about that. There are so many different sorts of people in the world, and they all have a right to their own choices.

I’m not telling him that he’s wrong to be the way he is. I’m talking to you. And what I want to tell you is that this is not the partner for you. This man would like to be a statue who stands in the exact same place doing the exact same things for the rest of his life. That’s not an exotic trait — lots of men are like that, actually. But reflect carefully on the implications of that: He doesn’t want to have new, risky experiences or encounter people who might have ideas or opinions that threaten his own. He doesn’t want to cultivate new ways of looking at the world that are introduced to him from outside forces. He doesn’t want his love for you to deepen and grow and transform him into a new, more flexible person, one who’s open to the world and the people in it.

That might sound like a stretch. Go back and read what you wrote: He says he doesn’t love people the way you do, and the love he’s giving you won’t expand or change with time. It will always be fixed, inert, predictable.

But that’s not how love is, CCG! Love is dynamic and wild, and when you let it in? IT CHANGES YOU. You grow. You learn new things. You become more curious, more alive, more thrilled with every single minute you get to breathe in the sunlight. LOVE IS DYNAMIC.

This man is afraid of love because he doesn’t want to be surprised. He doesn’t want to learn that he was wrong. He doesn’t want to feel confused or bewildered or off-balance. He doesn’t want to breathe in your love for him and let it fill his cells and wake him out of his slumber. He doesn’t want to be softened out of his defensive stance. He doesn’t want to grow into a new kind of man, with your help.

What he wants is for everything to stay exactly the same forever.

That means that the main thing he may have liked about you, when you met and also after that, was that you were secure enough to accept him exactly as he was. You were already happy, and you were attracted to and curious about him, so you tried to work with what he already was, what he already gave you, what he already wanted. Not a bad thing! It’s actually pretty healthy to meet someone and recognize that they’re unlikely to change in significant ways just for you, just because you want them to. Love doesn’t erase flaws, no way. So you tried on this very rigid man for size, and for a while, it felt right. Don’t give yourself a hard time for that.

But now it feels wrong. And what he’s telling you is I don’t care if this feels wrong for you. This is how I am and I’m not changing.

That’s a very particular kind of person. I love strong boundaries and even avoidance so I understand the appeal. But think for a minute about what your life will look like if you stay forever, allowing things to stay the same. All of your growth and curiosity and openness to the world will be in danger of wilting and dying off. Even your security and strong sense of who you are will take a hit, as he chooses his friends over you repeatedly. And even though his parents might be a nightmare to deal with, your parents are right that his relationship with them could be a sign of things to come. Because sometimes the closer and more familiar you become with a person, the more their intimacy issues bubble to the surface. He could become even more distant and recalcitrant moving forward. Eventually, you could end up with a relationship that’s characterized by contempt and withholding and distance.

Today is your day to write down everything you want from love. Do you want a real partner, who listens to you and learns from you? Or do you want to admire someone from afar, feeling left out and rejected? Do you want to see how your input and influence changes a man, transforming him into someone who’s more open and curious and interesting than he was before? Or would you rather sit, staring at your pet rock of a boyfriend, day after day, wondering when he might finally start listening to you or acknowledging the full breadth of what you bring to his life?

I know a few people who married pet rocks. These are marriages characterized by mutual contempt. The spouses of pet rocks don’t even bother bringing up their feelings after a few years, because they know that pet rocks don’t listen, don’t care, and will never change. I hate to sound so dire, but the fact is that for some people, the primary goal in life is to stay exactly the same forever. I’m not even claiming those people are always wildly unhappy. Sometimes they’re just fine. But when you meet one, you have to know what you’re getting into. It’s not all that romantic or passionate or exciting. It’s mostly just stagnant and solid. A person like that will never leave you, either. But that’s what’s fucked up about him. You could lose all of your joy and flair and he’d just put up with it and treat you like another object in the room.

So don’t lose your joy and flair. Dump this man and don’t look back. His lack of passion and romance for you isn’t personal. It has nothing to do with you. This is just who he is. You want more than this — much, much more. Admit that to yourself. Feed that. Write down what you want. Write down the life you want.

And believe in it. Because someone who’s secure and flexible and open and curious like you tends to get what she wants when she believes. Keep believing. And keep singing in the shower, too.


Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here

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‘My Boyfriend Refuses to Change’