Is our relationship a tear-down, or can it be repaired?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, NOV 10, 2004

We bought a house together and it’s tearing us apart.


Dear Cary,

My ex-boyfriend and I met three years ago, fell madly in love, and six months later bought a fixer-upper in a transitioning neighborhood in an inner-city neighborhood. Things spiraled out of control, and we spent the past two-plus years vacillating between some of the highest highs and, alternately, the lowest depths of hellish fighting. At the beginning of this month, we spent a week apart, and on coming back I had decided that I, for my part, had taken him for granted over the past few years and wanted to do what I could to turn things around. But he dumped me.

We still own this house together, and it’s not in a salable condition. So we’re not in a position to just terminate things entirely and have been trying to be friends and working to get the house to a point where we can sell it. We’ve been getting along extremely well, although we don’t see much of each other.

I have spent this month doing a wholesale reevaluation of what it is that makes me happy and have been really embracing that. And, coming off two years of a relationship that left me very unhappy, I’m enjoying myself immensely and am so glad our relationship is over. The thing is, in the process, I have decided that what I really want is a happy relationship with him. I’ve dropped all of my baggage — the things I’ve hated about him, the things he did to me, and the things I thought he did to me. And I think we have the tools to make a good relationship possible, and an unprecedented opportunity to make a fresh start.

We just had a discussion, and he said: “Even though we’ve been getting along so well, every advice columnist I’ve ever read has said that people don’t change,” and so he doesn’t believe that things can be different. And since I know he respects your advice very much (when you ran your series on home ownership, he went so far as to say that you were the same person), I wanted to ask an advice columnist: Can people change? I think he’s misconstruing things — I don’t think you can force someone to change, but people are infinitely capable of change on their own.

Our problem was one of letting all of the little things build on one another, so that we were essentially sweating all the small stuff — a poor choice of words could set off a daylong argument. And I think a lot of this was based on the stresses of buying a house that needed a lot of work (and still does) six months into a relationship and being thrown into each other’s finances and lifestyles and everything else so quickly.

What I’m really looking for from you is insight as to whether what I’m doing seems misguided or naive — and do you believe a relationship can be remade?

K

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Dear K,

Your story is a charming one. You met and fell in love, and within six months you’d bought a metaphor. The metaphor, situated in an inner-city neighborhood, had a lot of possibilities but needed work.

Working on the metaphor was difficult emotionally; it would have been easier if it had simply been a house. But, like me, you are an optimist. You believe that metaphors can be improved and brought to market for a significant profit; you believe, as I do, that improving a metaphor improves its surroundings, and everybody, metaphorically speaking, profits from your labor.

Well, you’re in a tough spot now. While working on the metaphor, your relationship was damaged. People in relationships, like old walls, conceal ancient failures and burn spots, places where the circuits blew and almost caused a fire. People, like old houses, reveal their weaknesses reluctantly and sometimes only after a few blows with a sledge hammer. There might be a break that you can’t see somewhere beneath the floor. You can go a long time pretending it’s not really broken, that it’s just sagging a little. You come up with things to say. You say the joists are fine — it’s just an old floor.

But then the inspector comes and rips things up. Look at this! he says. It’s completely gone! There’s nothing holding it up! Lucky we found it in time! It’s amazing you survived!

Your ex-boyfriend says that all advice columnists say that people don’t change. I dare say in this perhaps unintentional distortion he’s attempting to conceal his own personal fracture, that he himself has reached a point of no return, that he himself feels he can no longer change. Perhaps what he can’t say outright is that he’d rather rip it up and build somewhere new, that your relationship is a tear-down. But he can’t say it directly because you still have a lot of work to do together. So he’s talking in the abstract, hoping to avoid a confrontation. Your partnership has been so volatile, he may feel he can’t take any more stress, any more violent shaking. Once you’re done with the house, that might change; he might simply be unable to see past the dust; he might need some finished drawings to help him visualize the future.

So what I would do if I were you, and I say this with all the compassion I can muster, is I would concentrate on getting the actual house on the market. I would work with him as a business partner. I would concentrate on paint, plumbing and plasterboard. If he is going to change in his feelings toward you, he will. But you have no control over what he feels. That is probably the one thing advice columnists do agree on.

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