I keep dating the same kind of men

I know I keep making bad decisions ... but knowing hasn't helped me change

Published February 8, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

How does a person take their collective knowledge of "why they are the way they are" and put it to good use? I'm female, mid-30s, never married, with a handful of failed relationships with men. Every time I enter a new relationship, I think, "This will be the one where I don't make the same mistakes." Yet, I find myself single again after the man I've dated for over a year decided he didn't want a commitment.

I do want to marry and have children. Thus I've spent a fair amount of time on self-reflection, either on my own, in a therapist's office, or on the phone with my sister. I've spent several years sifting through the finer details of my relationship with my father -- yep, he's emotionally distant and critical, has an on/off problem with alcohol, you know the drill. So now, I have all this knowledge about me, about my relationship with my father, about why I play the role that I do in my relationships, etc., etc. I'm grateful for this knowledge. However, I want this knowledge to do something for me, because, frankly, I'm really starting to bore myself.

Knowing what I know, how can I, or anyone, for that matter, truly change? How do I stop making the same old choices, drawing in the same old men, putting up with the same old crap?


Ready for Change

Dear Ready for Change,

I only know one thing about this. When you have had enough then you will change.

Have you had enough? Have you truly had enough? Are you stumbling, blind and desperate? Are you lying on the sidewalk? Have you fallen to your knees and cried out to anyone who can hear that you cannot go on one minute more?

Then you will change.

Until then, you may acquire new skills and insights that alert you to your behavior. You may make better decisions. You may abort certain activities. You may begin to see the patterns in your life with greater clarity. You may become more cautious. You may get better at evaluating potential mates.

But you will not change in any fundamental way until you reach a breaking point. This breaking point may not be dramatic or even visible to others. It may be quiet, a moment  when something shifts inside. You may not even realize it at the time. But a transformation is not an adjustment. It is a shift.

Many desire deep, fundamental change, yet it is elusive. Certain life-changing experiences bring us to our core selves, or force us to make certain leaps -- leaps of faith, leaps that take us out of the ordinary and expose us to a more authentic and searing experience of the self. But how does that happen? How can we make it happen?

I don't think we can make it happen. But there are things that seem to predispose us to it.

Having a fatal flaw can be a blessing. Facing it may bring about the change you long for.

For me it was alcoholism.

That is all I know, personally. I have only experienced this once, when my alcoholism brought me to a condition in which I was willing to do the 12 steps. But people have adapted the 12 steps to other conditions. It seems reasonable that certain psychological conditions would produce the same hopelessness and despair that drive people to do the 12 steps.

Those of us who have found lasting help through the 12 steps can usually point to one defining moment. Such moments are usually preceded by years of difficulty and numerous attempts to change without experiencing any major disruptions in life or having to entertain foreign and sometimes empirically questionable notions. What happens in these moments is qualitatively different from the acquisition of new life skills or psychological insights. We had acquired life skills and understanding and insight but still could not stop doing what we were doing.

So I would suggest if you want such an experience that you entertain the notion that you might be one of those people for whom the 12 steps might work even though you do not seem to be an addict. I have heard people speak of being so demoralized by their behaviors that they "hit bottom" with codependence, sex, anger, etc.

It makes sense. It's not my story, but it makes sense. Why should alcohol have a special place in the mechanics of human transformation? Why would the universal human experience of hitting bottom and reaching out for help and finding a new way of living be confined to addicts? The history of religion and consciousness shows otherwise.

The important point is that transformation is not acquisition; rather, it is loss. We do not pick up new tools for living first; we first abandon what has served us so far, and in that moment between abandoning what has brought us this far and stepping into a new vessel is a moment of profound terror and joy.

That moment of terror is what distinguishes transformation from mere adjustment.

Since you have are standing at a precipice, I suggest you look into the 12 steps as they have been applied to problems of relationship and family. Al-Anon is a group that started to help the family members of alcoholics but has now been found useful for a variety of human problems.

But the steps are just activities; the results can often seem miraculous but I continue to believe that change begins with some ineffable human shift, whether you call it raw desperation, ego deflation, a moment of clarity, incomprehensible demoralization, seeing the light ... it doesn't matter so much what we call it as long as we understand what we are talking about. So the problem remains: How are we brought to this point? How do we arrive at it? Can it be precipitated, like inducing birth?

Perhaps you will be brought to this point by continual meditation on your problem, or by continuing therapy, or by a sudden realization; perhaps it will come to you as nothing more than a passing thought that has lasting resonance. I urge you to begin with the 12 steps and see where that takes you; doing such activities, if nothing else, seems to keep us attuned and alert to the necessary moment, whenever it arrives, and it always arrives in its own time.

By Cary Tennis

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