Should You Try To Change Your Partner?

By

Should You Try To Change Your Partner?
Author Karen Karbo learns that you truly can't change your partner.

I was fun, but I was also funny. I was snarky and smart, born to be the wisecracking best friend of the homecoming queen. And so I was. I was also the friend of Mike, the boy who had a crush on the queen. Of course, I had a mad crush on Mike. This is the sort of tragedy from which you can only recover if you stumble upon a Mike-substitute as an adult, and make a huge mess of things.

I loved CB because he reminded me of all those long lost boys, and because he loved me. He was my Mike. And for a short time, I was the queen, and not the friend.

CB seemed so familiar. On one of our early dates, we were speeding down the freeway on a warm California night, and he said he wasn’t sure what I saw in him. "I'm just a working class guy who likes video games and sex," he confessed, with a long slow grin.

I thought he was being self-deprecating (a word CB would never use in a million years). I thought it was adorable. I thought that phrase "video games and sex" was edgy and rock-lyric-like. I was a complete idiot. In the six years I knew him, CB had never said anything truer. This was who he was. And I did not believe him.

It is an old lesson we women continually fail to learn: you cannot make a person something he is not. CB was disappointing in many astonishing ways. But I refused to think it mattered, and that is my own damned fault.

Let me be clear, here: I like sex, too. But I also like the Russian novelists, particularly Dostoevsky and Nabokov. I like Dorothy Parker's poetry. I like The New Yorker, especially the impossibly long articles about the weather, or growing corn, or predicting earthquakes. I like Joan Miró and Chagall and the photographs of Lee Friedlander. I could go on, but you get the point.

Many Americans shrink at the idea of discussing class, and I am no different. To this day, even having learned the difficult and inescapable lesson I learned in my marriage to CB, I am somewhat ashamed to say it: I am educated and he is not. I won't say he's an idiot, and I won't say he doesn’t think. But he has no use for the life of the mind. And, worse, he's suspicious of anyone with an education. In the end, we didn't come from the same pond at all.

In the early days of our courtship and cohabitation, I was happy with CB. Only my oldest friend had doubts. Kiki and I been roommates in film school; she’d introduced to me the concept of the "greaser-poet" (being immune to the allure of the surfer with a Fender Stratocaster). I said, "I don't have to talk about literature with him. I can talk about it with you."

Kiki said that was ridiculous. She reminded me of the Tolstoy Test, a personality assessment we'd only half-jokingly devised back in college. We'd ask our dates which character they preferred in War and Peace: Pierre (passionate, impulsive outsider) or Prince Andrei (disciplined, emotionally-aloof intellectual). Their answers, we felt, would speak volumes.

I assured Kiki that CB had never read Tolstoy. She said she was sure he had no idea who Tolstoy was.

I wish I could say that in the end, this didn't matter. I told myself that we were opposites, but opposites attract, right? I was an uptown girl and he was a downtown boy. I was Hepburn–bookish and clever—and he was Tracy— a working class hunk who knew the true worth of things. Letting go of this fantasy was sadder than letting go of CB.

One difficult winter, during the second year of our three-year marriage, I found myself jonesing for biographies of Henry Tudor and his many wives. I must have read 10 of them, just to pass the time. Meanwhile, in the other room, CB watched Star Wars, which he'd seen over a dozen times. I don't know if he felt lonely, but I did.

In any tortured relationship there are more than a few last straws. Most of them are Springer-worthy acts of stalking, lying, and crockery hurling (and in that department, CB and I certainly did our part to contribute to the tradition). But what I think of as the real end—the thing from which we could never recover, even if we wanted to—occurred a few weeks before we separated. Kiki and I were going to the movies, to see Pollack.

"What's Pollack?" he asked.

Somehow, I knew he would ask that. I stared at him.

I had to see if what I suspected was true. I'd always worked to downplay what I thought of as my brainy enthusiasms, but realized at that moment that my knowledge wasn't freakishly erudite. It was basic information known to any educated person.

"I can't believe you've never heard of Jackson Pollack," I said with the most disdain I could muster.

CB grabbed the newspaper from me and studied the movie ad for a long minute. "Oh, I get it," he snorted. "He's a tortured artist, just like you."

"Was," I said. "He’s dead."

Marriages can survive more catastrophes than we could ever imagine. But they cannot survive contempt. It didn't end there, of course. I didn't throw my bag over my shoulder, march out to the theater to meet my friend, and return home to find he'd packed a bag and left a note. But the damage was done.

We fought some more. I moved out, even though we were living in a house I owned. He was unhappy with this arrangement. He said he was going to try; part of his effort was subscribing to the New York Times.

I lived at Kiki's house all summer. Once, when I returned to pick up something in the basement, I passed the newspaper recycling pile. It was a towering, several foot-high pile of unread Times, still captive in their blue plastic bags. Once I was gone, CB didn't have the interest or aptitude to slog through a daily newspaper.

I realized then that I could neither change my soon-to-be ex-husband into the sort of person who would be interested in the day's news, nor co-exist with someone who wasn't. To this day, the thought of that stupendous pile still makes me sad.

My current boyfriend and I have been together for six years. He's not a greaser-poet with working-class roots, but the nerdy son of an attorney who taught himself Latin in high school, just for fun. He is from Southern California though, and surfed at Malibu as a boy. I don't know if he owned a Sting-Ray bike. But he has read War and Peace, and favors Prince Andrei. I’m a Pierre person, myself, but as my friend Kiki says, I've always been shamelessly tolerant where my boyfriends are concerned.

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