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What Can I Do to Get Him to Change?

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"WHAT CAN I DO to get him to change?” my friend asks me. We are sitting in an outdoor café on a quiet Sunday afternoon, drinking our lattes and talking. “How can I make him understand?!” She frowns, throwing her hands in the air, spilling some of her coffee onto the tablecloth. She moves the saucer to cover the stain and searches my face. “There must be a way to get through to him!”

“How is your father doing?” I ask, changing the subject. “Is he still on the golf course a lot?”

It is a fascinating phenomenon, this conviction that you know what’s best for another person and that you can actually do something to change that person. Who among us hasn’t at one time or another felt certain that we have the right to interfere with the life of another and correct it “for the better”?


Husbands and wives, lovers and friends, partners in businesses and in life, siblings, governments, neighbors ... at home and at work ... relentlessly, people fight to get others to see their point and change accordingly.


Yet no one does.


Again and again I hear the same old song: “How can I get Jake to stop drinking? I have tried everything! But he just won’t listen!”


“What can I do to get Sara to see that she needs to leave her abusive husband while she is still alive?!”


“How can I get my mother to stop smoking? It is killing her and still she won't stop! Am I supposed to just sit and wait for her to get lung cancer??!!”


A tired, frustrated chorus, determined to get its way, yet never getting it. “What can I do to make them change?”... they begin.


“Nothing.” I usually say. “Absolutely nothing.”


"WE’VE ALL BEEN THERE. We’ve tried everything - exhausting every means of expression, scratching our foreheads until they bled - but it never made any difference. We kept hitting a wall of resistance. At times, it was mind blowing how impenetrable, how unmovable our loved ones were. Against all logic, contrary to common sense, stubbornly and oh, so stupidly (we were sure) they fought us back every inch of the way. They resisted our pleas and threats. They ignored our cold withdrawals. They were unmoved by our tears and unaffected by our promises to leave. At times it looked as if they were ready to lose everything that mattered to them just so they could continue to act the way they wanted to act.


Have you ever wondered why no matter how convincing you were, it never worked? Have you ever been dumbfounded by their unbreakable stubbornness? Have you ever questioned their sanity? Or your own? Ever doubted yourself? Cursed the time you met them? Swore to never again fall for someone like that, yet found yourself in the same situation once again - trying to get him or her to change but failing miserably?


No matter how hard we try, they never seem to hear us, do they? No matter how “right” we believe we are. No matter how much we are doing it “for their own good” nor how “pure” our intention.


Remarkably, however, if we leave our loved ones alone “to their own devises”, they often change, mysteriously and inexplicably, when you least expect them to. All these years we’ve tried to get them to “see”, fought to get them to understand…and now, when we finally drop it, stop badgering them, accept the situation and either have left them or let go of trying to change them… suddenly, after all this time….who would have thought?...they go and change on their own! They do exactly what we’ve been asking them to do for so long. And why do they do this? Not because of us. But because they suddenly want to do it.


How to explain this strange dynamics?


Let me tell you a story.

* * *

IT HAPPENED FOUR years ago, in March of 2003, on an especially beautiful spring day. It was the kind of day that fills me with gratitude for being alive: everything seemed right with the world, and I couldn’t help but wonder why I ever had any worries when life was so amazing, so rich and abundant, so full of promise…


I was about to go into my home office when the telephone rang.


My friend Jane’s voice was hollow, devoid of all expression. She sounded as if all life had drained out of her and it was difficult to speak at all. Still she was making the effort.


“I need to talk to you,” she said.


I knew what she wanted to talk about. Jane had been in a destructive, abusive relationship for two years with her boyfriend Clark, who, I was convinced, was a con man, exploiting Jane for all she had. By the time Jane made this call, she had almost completely dropped out of sight, barely returning calls, estranging herself from all her friends. I had suspected she was in trouble and was certain that drugs were involved. I knew that she was supporting Clark, who was not working. I also knew she was hopelessly in love with him, giving him money for alcohol and drugs, paying for his keep in every way. They lived in Jane’s studio apartment, which Jane, a woman of exquisite taste, had always maintained beautifully. I couldn’t begin to imagine how disturbed she must have been by Clark’s constant messiness, even though housekeeping must have been the least of her concerns.


At the time of Jane’s call, some of her friends were considering staging an intervention. But I knew from experience that interventions can only be effective if the targeted person is ready to change.


It was a tough call. By then I had had several conversations with Jane, sometimes initiated by her, sometimes by me, but her situation remained the same. I knew that for Jane to change externally there needed to be an internal change. There had to be a change in her consciousness, an awakening, a shift in her psyche, and until this happened there was nothing anyone could do.


And so - I didn’t try to rescue Jane. I knew what happened in these cases. How many times in the past had I rushed to save a friend? How many times in the past had I felt an urgent, pressing need to get involved, to interfere, to rescue someone who I believed to be trouble, to save them from themselves “for their own good”?


But the truth is: “rescuers get slaughtered”. Always. The first time I heard my friend Lazaris say this, I had to pause. It was incredible and yet so simple, I could have easily missed it. But the more I thought about it, the more profound these three words became.


Remember the time you attempted to “save” your friend from her cheating husband? Did she leave him as you had insisted? Or did she in the end turn against you? Or what about that drinking, alcoholic buddy of yours? Once you explained to him in no uncertain terms where he was headed, did he stop drinking or did he choose instead to end his relationship with you? Remember all the times you’ve tried so hard to “help” and instead, the beneficiaries of your care got angry, furious, ungrateful?


And yet you were so sure of what was right for them. It was so obvious to you! If they would only listen to you and change what they were doing… they would be saved from whatever was wrong in their life. You could see it so clearly! How come it wasn’t clear to them? Were they blind? Stubborn? Or just stupid?Yet in the end, were you able to help? Or did you, perhaps, end up “misunderstood” and “unappreciated” in spite of all your good intentions? I have yet to come across anyone who did not have good intentions. Isn’t that what the road to hell is paved with? Has anybody ever had bad intentions?


* * *

I HAD NOT TRIED TO RESCUE JANE, because I knew I could not. Instead, I held the hope that the time would come when she would make a different choice, and when it came, I would be there for her.


Perhaps, - I thought, listening to her breathing on the other end of the phone, this was the time.


Still I had become weary with her situation.


“I need to talk to you,” Jane said.


"I know what I have to do.”“If you know what to do, then we really don’t even need to talk”, I said. By then I thought I had already told her all I could.


“Oh yes, we do,” she said with sudden resolve, and I remembered how powerful she could be, once she would set her mind to do something. “When can we meet?” she asked.


“Anytime,” I said. Such was the nature of our friendship. It was always “anytime”, when one of us needed the other.


“How about today?” she said. “One o’clock.”


When I picked Jane up near her house two hours later, I was not prepared for what I saw. She seemed to have grown shorter, with a stoop in her posture that I hadn’t noticed before. She had gained at least 10 pounds and was wearing a loose flannel shirt, shapeless and old, over a long gypsy skirt - instead of the tight fitting jeans she loved to wear and always looked so great in in the past. A big straw hat and sun glasses covered her face almost beyond recognition. As she approached my car, she quickly extinguished her cigarette and climbed into the seat next to me. She did not take off her dark glasses. With trembling hands she fingered the edge of her scarf, a scarf she did not need on this warm, sunny day, then wrapped it twice around her neck and reached for another cigarette forgetting to ask me if it was OK to smoke.


“Just keep the cigarette outside,” I said softly, as we began to drive down the street. We were going to have lunch in a downtown restaurant, but in the last minute Jane had called me to change the plans. She was unable to bring herself to go downtown, she couldn’t be anywhere among too many people.


“We have all the time in the world,” I said. I had cancelled all my plans for that day. “Let’s just drive for a while.”


I noticed how calm I was. I had no agenda to “save” Jane and held no illusion that I could do so. But I was there for her all the way. I would go as far as she was ready to go, and no further.


We ended up in a quiet, beautiful restaurant at the Wharf. It was past lunch hour, and the place was half empty. San Francisco Bay stretched outside our window. Azure blue, motionless water, endless blue sky, a lighter shade than the bay, but just as rich and sensuous. There were no clouds. “No matter what happens, no matter what turmoil, what upheaval befalls us, this will always be here, this water, this sky, this peace,” I suddenly thought. “There will always be this respite, this place “to fall together”.


Seagulls perched on the backs of empty benches. It was only March, not yet a tourist season in San Francisco. The Wharf was mostly deserted, but for a few passers by hurrying along the street. Jane leaned back, reached for a glass of water and began to talk.


It was a sad story. Most of it I knew or suspected, though the details turned out to be worse than I had imagined.


I learned that Jane’s health was very poor, kidney stones, problems with her lungs, fatigue, lack of sleep, stomach trouble. Several times a week she would find herself on the floor, doubled up with stomach cramps and nausea that lasted for hours, leaving her exhausted and dizzy, unable to function for the rest of the day. Yet she had not seen a doctor and did not know what was causing the attacks. By then she had already lost her health insurance, had absolutely no money, owed everybody, and her fear of Clark was overwhelming. She knew she was being used shamelessly by Clark, and yet she was addicted to him. At times she dreamed of ending the relationship, but was too weak to do anything about it. In fact, Jane lived in perpetual fear of Clark, terrorized by his frequent, “out of the blue” fits of rage.


As I was listening to Jane, I remembered that Timothy Black, Jane’s friend from high school, had called me a few months ago suggesting that all of Jane’s good friends get together and demand that Clark leave. I was suddenly seized by a desire for revenge. It was so tempting, so seductive to just go and interfere, “right the wrong”, punish the abuser, make him pay. We will all stand up for Jane! If we come and throw Clark out, that will show him!


I had to shrug off the thought. It was a familiar temptation. The one that had never worked. Even if we were able to scare Clark into leaving, he would be back the next day. And Jane would let him in.


No. It had to be up to Jane. She was the only one who could change her own life.

We talked for four hours.


Jane felt no need to cover anything up, to make it pretty. She was in love, and it was messy and raw and all wrong. But it was what it was, and it was real. There were times when she was with Clark and felt more alive and happy than she ever had in her entire life. And it was hard to give it up. A smile, a touch, a moment of tenderness, and then “Can you give me some money, I need a drink?” And Clark would go out, cash in hand, not to be seen until the early hours… Who would he go to?, Jane wondered. Who would he make love to prior to coming back and falling asleep in a drunken stupor as Jane lay awake all night clenching her fists, hating herself, hating her life, sick with resentment and rage?


This was the situation she was in, and though I had known some of it from our previous conversations and had suspected the rest of it, I never knew the full extent of her nightmare. Perhaps she needed to hear it herself.


I listened.


“At least you are not telling me I have to leave him”, Jane suddenly said. “That’s why I stopped talking to everyone else. God! If I hear it again, I’ll just scream! Everyone keeps telling me what I already know! I don’t need to hear it! And they all hate Clark! I just can’t talk to them any more. Even to my sister. I stopped picking up the phone”.


Jane reached for her water and emptied the glass in one gulp. I put my hand over her palm. I suddenly saw it as clear as day light. Two choices lay in front of Jane that afternoon, two roads to travel. But she could only travel one of them. And she was the only one who could make this choice.


“You can do what you want,” I said. “No one can tell us what we should do, ever. But if you stay with Clark you are going to die.”


I was strangely detached. As if watching both of us from somewhere else while being fully involved in the conversation at the same time. I knew that we were at a pivotal point.


Jane watched me silently. She was letting it sink in.


“That bad, huh?” she said.


“Not bad. Not wrong. Just a choice,” I said. But she needed more. “It is OK to die,” I said. “It is not bad or wrong. It is simply a choice, and it’s up to you. I will miss you, of course, but it is your right, you know that.”


Jane closed her eyes for a second.“Is that what you believe?” she asked.


“Yes. Except it won’t be quick and easy. You won’t go in your sleep. It will be long and drawn out, with illnesses, pain, poverty.”


Was I trying to scare Jane? Was I trying to manipulate her, using fear to get her to see her reality more clearly? Do you think, dear reader, that if I did, it would have worked? Haven’t you tried that many times in the past in similar situations? Telling an alcoholic friend that he was drinking himself to death. Telling a smoker that he would die of lung cancer. Telling an abused wife that she should leave while she is still alive. Have they ever done what you suggested? No. They have not.


I was not trying to scare Jane into action. I was simply telling her the truth. I was telling her what I saw. What I knew in my gut, knew intuitively. I also knew it logically. I had no agenda. As I said, I was completely detached. It was a moment of grace. And of total clarity. A moment outside time and space. Nothing else existed between us - only the truth. And that’s why Jane heard me.“That bad,” she repeated again.


“Yes. That bad,” I said.


There was a pause. A long pause. There seemed to be nothing left to say. Suddenly Jane spoke. She seemed calmer, almost as detached as I was. As if she was simply contemplating ordinary choices.


“You know how I always wanted to move to San Rafael. It is so much warmer there than in San Francisco. And if I moved, Clark could not follow me. He has no car and no money.”


“Yes, that would be great,” I said.


“But I have no money”, she shrugged. “I am in debt to everyone. There’s no way I can move. I would need first and last month’s rent. A security deposit…”


“I’ll give you the money,” I said.


I said it so calmly and with such ease, it was as if I had planned it in advance. Though quite the opposite was true, of course. Until I heard myself say it, the thought had never entered my mind. Jane was a notorious borrower and paid back slowly and never on time. I suspected for quite a while that she was doing drugs with Clark and decided not to lend her money again, even if she asked.


But I was not offering a loan.


“It won’t be a loan,” I said. “It will be my gift. It will give me pleasure. I would love to do it."


It was the right thing to do. And it was not a big deal. I was hoping she’d say yes, yet it was simply an offer. I was not invested in her taking it, though I would be very happy if she did. It was up to Jane, of course. Her desire to move had inspired my offer to help.


I wasn’t rescuing her, but simply supporting her own choice.

Jane leaned back and stared at me, as if not sure she heard correctly.


I smiled.


“It is not even that much money, Jane.”


“You can’t do that…No. I can’t let you do that. Are you serious?”“Why not?” I said. “Wouldn’t you do the same for me?” It was suddenly very easy. Very clear. I was relaxed.


Jane reached for her coffee, but put it down without drinking. She pulled off her hat, pulled the rubber band off her pony tail, then looked at me again, her eyes wide.


“You would do that?”And suddenly, my old friend, the excitable, intense, hyper and funny Jane was back there with me, incredulous, stunned, yet unable to contain her excitement as this amazing new possibility was being dropped into her lap as if by magic.


I was excited myself. In fact, I was so excited I had to make an effort not to overwhelm Jane with my own emotions. A miracle was unfolding in front of my eyes. A future, that a moment ago had not even been a distant possibility was now rushing in, aligning probabilities, creating circumstances, clearing everything out of its way, so as to fully come into the present and manifest in all its power.


“Perhaps I could have a dog then,” Jane said.


“Of course you could,” I said. “You could make sure to rent a place that allows dogs.”


“And a little yard, so I could work outside in the sun on the computer…”


“Certainly. We can look this weekend. That would be a lot of fun.”


Looking back later, I wondered what it had been that I’d said to Jane that had made such a difference. What had it been that empowered her to find her voice, to find the strength and the resolve that she needed to change her situation...

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