Recently, I’ve been exchanging emails with Lisa, a reader who came to me with a story that’s achingly famililar. Rather than quoting twenty paragraphs of text, I’ve chosen to paraphrase her story a bit.
Lisa is married to a guy named Jeff. They’re pretty freshly out of college and both have reasonably well-paying jobs. They don’t have children, but they do have a pretty good stack of student debt and some credit card debt along with two car payments. They live in a rented house but don’t have a strong desire to buy a home of their own.
In other words, they have a situation not too unfamiliar to a lot of couples in their twenties and thirties. It sounds a lot like the situation Sarah and I were in in 2003 and 2004, to tell the truth.
Here’s the catch, though. Lisa is really frustrated with how Jeff spends his money. When she doesn’t talk to him about it, he overspends a little, but whenever she brings up spending issues with him, he becomes incredibly defensive about changing his habits and actually seems to actively spend more for a while after these discussions.
His usual argument is that if he doesn’t have some freedom when it comes to spending, then why is he putting in so much work for his career? Shouldn’t he enjoy this stage in his life, before they have a house and children to worry about?
Here’s the thing: I once felt almost exactly the same way that Jeff did.
The danger of a new path
I can’t speak for Jeff’s specific feelings, of course, but I can speak from my own experience and the experiences that many other readers have shared with me.
Simply put, when you’ve got a day-to-day life that you’re content with, it’s often hard to look beyond that and seek out larger goals. In fact, on many levels, you’ll fight hard to maintain the life that you already have.
Why? Change is risky. Sure, you might be embarking down a path towards something better than you have right now, but what you have right now is at least reasonably good. Plus, that path is likely going to be more challenging than maintaining the status quo. Why change?
If you see your current situation as being good enough, you’re going to want to stay there. You’ll probably even fight to stay there. When people step up and actively oppose changing their life, they’re fighting to stay in an area where they perceive their current situation as being better than change.
For people in that situation, something in their life has to change enough so that sticking with the status quo is worse than changing it.
For some, it’s just a matter of growing older. For others, it might be the birth of a child (that was what did it for me). Maybe a job loss has to occur, or perhaps a deep relationship schism.
You can’t force others to change
The challenge for people in Lisa’s situation is that you can’t make someone else have that event that triggers change, at least not without undergoing some significant change yourself. You can either wait for an event to happen or do something to change the situation.
“Convincing” someone else to make a life change that they’re otherwise resisting won’t work. They have to decide from within that the change is the best path for them to follow.
When you want change and your partner does not
So, what can Lisa do? She has a few options.
First, she needs to decide whether this is a relationship-breaker. Is this something that’s vital enough to her future to walk away from this relationship in chasing it? Is it better to have Jeff, or is it better to have financial security? Obviously, both is best, but in order to achieve both, you’re going to have to risk one or the other.
If she decides the relationship is paramount, patience is the key. She’s going to have to be patient until Jeff matures and begins to make realizations of his own. It might happen suddenly due to a job loss or something else, but it also might happen gradually as he grows older and experiences more of life.
If she decides that financial security and stability are paramount, she needs to communicate this clearly to Jeff. If this is genuinely how Lisa feels, then Jeff’s persistence in maintaining the status quo is pushing Lisa away from him, and he needs to clearly understand what’s at risk here.
In either case, honesty and communication are the key. Lisa needs to be absolutely clear with Jeff in either case – and she needs to be honest with herself, too. Making a “threat” to end the relationship that she has no actual intent to ever follow through with is just damaging to the long-term trust of the relationship.
When you’re struggling with your own individual change
What if it’s just Jeff (or Lisa), though? There’s no partner cajoling you to change. All you have is a sense that you should make some changes, but you fear going down that path and feel better staying where you are, and you often fight to stay there if someone pushes you to change. What do you do?
Baby steps. That’s the solution. Make one little change. It will move you subtly in the direction you want to go and you’ll find it isn’t painful. Just be on guard that you don’t undo that change with your other actions (in other words, if you spend $10 less in one area, don’t spend $10 more in another area).
If that change works, make another little one. If it works well for you, stick with it. If it doesn’t, undo the change.
I like to compare it to walking on an ice-covered pond in the winter. You’re not entirely sure if the ice will hold you as you cross the pond, so you take one step, then another. If the ice begins to crack under you, you step back and try another route.
Every time I have done this in my own life, I’ve found that the changes weren’t painful at all – or at least weren’t as painful as I expected – and I began slowly adding more and more changes to my life.
It is difficult to change. Moving away from the safety of your current position is never easy. Be slow and patient, and if others are involved, be open and communicative about it. The path is never as scary as you think it is.