Have you done inner work?

introspectionDG reader Tim asked me to address the following, which applies to both genders:

I’m 41 and been dating 3 years. Most of the woman I meet assume that they can go from a divorce to another long-term relationship and never work on themselves before doing so. The longer someone is in a bad relationship the more work it is going to take to get yourself ready to date and have a healthy relationship again.

I spent 5 years in a 12-step program designed for family members of substance abusers, and even longer in personal counseling. I slowly changed myself into an emotionally healthy person capable of a healthy relationship.

I realize most people are not going to have gone through the level of self-improvement as I have. I do not believe I have unattainable criteria by which I’m judging my dates, and which have been confirmed by other emotionally healthy people. But I wonder if I’m ever going to find someone who admits that both partners in a failed marriage are responsible to some degree. If you’ve been in an abusive situation, you’re going to need to seek help if you plan on having a healthy relationship again.

Here are responses from women when I asked what they had done since their divorce to ensure a better outcome in their next relationship.

“I’ve been divorced for a year, and my ex was such an a–hole I knew I needed to take care of myself a little so just went shopping.” The sad part is she meant it.

“It was entirely his fault, why should I have to do anything?” Next please!

A woman I dated for several months gave me all of the right answers. Turns out she knew the right things to say, but saying them and living them are two completely different things. She had major trust issues with men in general because of how terribly her ex had treated her. This caused communication problems because she was still trying to protect herself from him, even though she was dating me.

How can women (or men) expect to move onto an emotionally healthy relationship when they have only ever been in a bad one without doing anything to change?

Tim, you articulate what I and other midlife daters have found as well. Few are willing to look at their part in a marriage breakdown as it is so much easier to blame the one who “did you wrong.” Since my ex left me (not for another woman), it was easy to blame him for being self-centered and inflexible. But the more I looked inside, I saw I had a hand in our dissolution, even though it was hard to admit it.

I find few people willing to look inside, even if they are in a terrific relationship. It takes courage to face your demons. Although it’s gotten much better in the last few decades, there is still some stigma about counseling. Many people feel they aren’t “broken” so why invest in counseling? The truth is a good counselor can help you become even better than you imagined, clearing out old issues that may be holding you back without your realizing it. In the past 30 years I’ve seen therapists when I’ve been in pain and also when I wanted to make my life even better. But it can be emotionally draining so I can see why many people prefer to not experience reliving painful pasts.

Now, back to the women’s responses to your question. While shopping therapy can be beneficial, not if that’s the only thing you’ve done to heal from the relationship. And even if your ex was the biggest cad, jerk, loser and player ever born, there is still healing to do about what caused you to be attracted to someone like this, or stay with someone like that. If you don’t work on the root causes, you’ll keep finding yourself with the same kind of person, no matter how much you swear you know the signs.

To answer your specific question, I’m biased. I think you are doomed to repeat the same type of relationship issues with the next relationship(s) until you do some reflection, introspection and work on recognizing the causes of your patterns. If someone I’m dating admits he’s never done any personal growth activities, I’m cautious. However, I know the opposite is also a red flag — if someone is constantly enrolled in self-development programs, but makes no changes. They just know the language but don’t practice the principles.

What do you think? Do you think it’s important to work on yourself before entering your next relationship? What has worked for you? How do you respond to a potential suitor who says he doesn’t need to do any reflection and takes no part of the responsibility for his last relationship failing?

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14 responses to “Have you done inner work?”

  1. MADY Avatar

    Barf…you 2 are text book wuss’s..dont tell me neither one of you have ever heard of the golden rule..you know the ones..just live by that and i dont mean in a religioius way ..and stop running to psychologists and 12 step programs ..just be considerate of your partner , dont cheat, dont be a pathetic drunk or druggie, spend a little time with the family, dont put your friends beforE your family, dont lie, cheat & steal. Work and be resposible..AND BE AFFECTIONATE,, and if you do all that.. and still cant please your mate FIND A NEW ONE.. and If you dont do all that, EXPECT TO GET DUMPED UNLESS YOU FIND ANOTHER ENABLER..
    whine whine whine…GROW UP..

  2. sdl Avatar

    Well, having grown up in NorCal I can kinda-feel MADY’s attitude- there was far too much self-help/group-help agendas out there 😉

    But, there is a big difference between just stepping up when you have no major luggage and know what the right things to do are and people with serious, serious problems.

    If you have not or cannot deal with truly damaging things in your past without assistance and continued guidance, then I think getting help is neccessary- even if it is only for your own long-term happiness outside of relationships.

    As far as those ‘doing work on themselves’, it is far too easy for people who have been exposed to that aspect to manipulate you and others into believing they are sincere, motivated, and changing in ways you want/need.

    I would recommend Tim be more than cautious about more potential partners knowing how to play the situation like the last woman described- only some are willing to go to almost any lengths on the surface to deceive you if you are what they want.

    Yeah, last relationship moved forward into commitment when MAJOR effort appeared to be happening along with professional guidance (counselors, retreats, heart-to-heart conversations, big improvements on personal dynamics, etc)-
    Problem was, it was only because that was what I said I needed before I would move forwards…and over the years the various attempts at assistive counseling gigs during regressions blew up in my face when those same hyper-developed manipulative skills were used on the therapists to convince them *I* had severe issues (well, until I learned to bring his written words on the same subjects being covered for the therapist to read and see they were being played).
    Finally, he just said he did not want to be that ‘other person’ I wanted him to be or even live his life remotely like we had agreed to upon commitment, and it was not fair that he had to change so I would accept him!
    Mind you, as long as he thought he was getting what he wanted out of the relationship he never even hinted he wasn’t REALLY willing to deal with his issues and act in a mature and respectful fashion to his family and the rest of the world as long as I helped him…

    Bitter much? Yep, and it will take me a while to deal with it.
    If it were just me I might be able to see the lessons learned and let go of most of the sense of betrayal. But is isn’t just me, and both my daughters got screwed over instead of having a positive male role model and father figure… because I kept believing he really wanted to act better and buying the repentance act 🙁

    Am I ready to date? Not at all.
    I feel it will take me at least another year of singledom and dealing with the fall-out before I even consider myself ready to try my hand again…and during that time of building myself and my life back to a good place I will think long and hard about what I am willing to accept in another person I am intimate with, not believe that the person I meet is going to somehow ‘change’ in those areas that are flags, and likely be MUCH less trusting than the person I was 15 years ago.

    It’s sad, but my open, honest, and generous spirit was too badly betrayed after YEARS of trust to not have developed my own luggage- but at least I KNOW I have it!

  3. Felicia Avatar

    Here’s one for you.
    Im in my late 40s. I’ve never been married. I’ve never been in a serious relationship and I’m still single. I”m not overweight. I dress fairly well – at least I’m complimented on it quite frequently if you can go by that . I’m not a wallflower, not an extravert either but there’s something WRONG with me. At 5ft 2. I’m not gorgeous and men never pay any attention to me. I don’t turn them away. They just aren’t interested.

    I’ve spent my whole life following after other women who get noticed while I remain waiting….No one ever tries to fix me up. I’m often left out of social events because I’m a lame duck without a companion. You might say, “get help” …..”face the facts”…..”there’s something wrong with YOU!”…. Yup, and you’d probably be right too which is why I’ve often considered seeking help but someone on here has hit on my chief concern. I don’t want to be brainwashed into thinking I’m something that this person/therapist thinks I am – or worse – convinced that i have to accept being alone because it’s obviously “reality check time”.

    I’m lonely and unhappy. At the same time, I have coping strategies galore to get me through. Feeling like a misfit doesn’t exactly equip one want to “just get out there”!
    If I had a dime for every time someone has asked me what my husband does…or how many kids I have…or if I’m divorced…I’m damn sick of covering for my apparent lack of social competance! Can a therapist fix this? Can a therapist undo years of being overlooked, despite the best of intentions? I think not. What do you think?

  4. Dating Goddess Avatar


    You sound like you’d be a good catch!

    A good therapist/counselor should be able to help you see what you’re doing that is not attracting the men you want. S/he would help you see that even “misfits” find love. I’ve shared before that I have a friend who is a burn victim and in a wheel chair and is a BABE Magnet! He has been married 3 times and I’ve never seen him without at least one attractive woman by his side. So he exudes an appeal we could all learn from.

    You are labeling it social incompetence. Others may not. You have built a life that works for you and you are wanting more. Look for the posting called “The Flip Side Technique” and see if you can reframe your situation.

    Get recommendations from your doctor or friends and have an initial meeting with a therapist or two. Not all will click with you, so don’t get discouraged if the first one falls flat. You need to have someone who, as you say, won’t judge you.

    Check back in after you’ve had a few appointments with a counselor you like and let us know how it’s going.

  5. Scott Avatar

    Felicia, hang in there. I’ve been inexplicably single for a while now, even though people are constantly telling me I’m great. Married women friends of mine all ask why their husbands can’t be more like me, yada yada. When you’re ready, and it’s right, it will happen. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

    I disagree with the position that this is all a lot of hooey. There are things that you have to pay attention to, and one of them is how your actions affect others. If you think you did great, and the other person was a jerk or nuts or whatever, then you’re both wrong. You were attracted to a damaged person, you accepted their limitations or their insults, whatever the case may be.

    You need to realize that just because people around you have relationships that look good on the outside doesn’t mean they have something meaningful. I could have had a trophy wife a long time ago. Instead, I want a partner, an equal, a friend, and most of all someone whose very presence in my life makes me want to be a better man. That’s a lot to ask, which may be why I’m still asking after all these years.

  6. Ellen Avatar

    Nice post and said what’s really important in dating. Rather than making lists of who we seek and spending all our time on dating sites or at parties screening potential mates, I vote we take some time to find out who WE are first. We’re so busy looking for someone to love us and striking out – what if we learn who WE are and what old scripts WE repeat that doom us to fail, and then look for a mate. And we can date and learn from each relationship about ourselves by watching our reactions and what upsets us and seeing what it is in US that causes that, not just saying that the other person doesn’t fit well. If we really know who WE are, we are much more likely to find a good match.

    xo Ellen

  7. Felicia Avatar

    Interesting discussion and sorry if I sounded melodramatic. It’s easy to hold your own pity party when you’re the only one with an invitation!

    True, one has to figure out who one is and what one wants but believe me, I’ve had plenty of time to figure out who I am and what I want. I don’t need a therapist to do that. Anyway, how can a stranger figure out what you’re doing wrong? Follow you around? Dr Phil says, “go to Home Depot or the book store”…Been there, done that. All I see are the sales clerks and some old homeless guy looking for a free cup of coffee!

    The flip side of this is the kind of woman who drifts from one meaningless relationship to another just so she doesn’t have to be alone – and haven’t we all known that type? I am not one of those. I figure I know myself as well as anyone can – alone.

    In repsonse to the thoughtful comments here, I have a few concerns for we 40+ ‘ers.
    Does it really matter whether you see a shrink, do some naval gazing, climb a mountain, become a hermit , meditate, or take substances to enhance your “self-awareness” at this point? The pool of single people among our set is pretty shallow, seems to me. I’ve tried online dating – both with Match and Yahoo. Wouldn’t date a “single” candidate who responded to me (and believe me you’d sympathize if you could see what responded!) Let’s see, I had a choice between a guy who wanted to date any woman between 25 and 70 – and a 71 year old guy from Redondo Beach, CA. You gotta’ laugh and believe me, often I do…that is when it’s not a Saturday night.

    As for the point about “attached” people not all being happy as they seem, believe me, I’ve “coached” a few friends through painful breakups, divorces, etc.. I know the picture is not always as pretty as it may seem, so why doesn’t that make me feel a whole lot better? How does it go, ‘Better to have loved and lost…than never to have loved at all…”

    Thanks though, We’re all on a journey. Maybe someday I’ll write a best-seller called, “How NOT to Meet a Man”! I’m already pretty good at it!

  8. walt Avatar

    Hey Felicia – like DG said, you sound like a good catch! So, I’m curious, what’s your theory as to why you haven’t had success with men? I’m sure you have some idea. In my experience, when a woman is not able to find a man, it’s usually due to something specific, like being overweight, being unfriendly, or having unreasonably high standards. But none of those sound like they apply to you. Generally, a woman doesn’t have to have a sparkling personality (women are much tougher on men in that regard), she just needs to be friendly and genuine (if even that!). So, what do you think is going on?

    As far as the online thing goes – so those who responded to you seemed less than tempting. Join the club! Did you try writing to men who seemed interesting and attractive to you?

    BTW, if you said hi to me in Hone Depot I’d be psyched! (and I’m neither old nor homeless!).

  9. nysharon Avatar

    I did the therapy, marriage couseling, self help books, blah blah blah. What I did wrong was not walking away sooner and recongnizing that it wasn’t OK to stay just for my daughter. No matter how much “work” I did, I still got involved with someone who was unavailable and not there for me. It isn’t that simple and there are no quick fixes. Like DG has said before, somethings are ingrained in us from our childhood relationships and the messages our parents gave us. We just must keep trying to get it right with the “right” person.

  10. LA Avatar

    Hi people. It is all about your programming. What the mind expects tends to get realized. In other words if you expect to be ignored and dumped you will. If you project all of your insecurities and limiting behaviors on another your intention of self pity will be manifest. It is all about intention people. We do need to do our own work and to heal ourselves. Our partner is not responsible. If your partner is not willing to do his/her self work, move on.


  11. Tim aka The Foto Nut Avatar
    Tim aka The Foto Nut

    Yes, I am the Tim that sent the email in the first place, and the Dating Goddess and I tend to agree on this matter. There were two major benefits that came from my time of self growth. First, I bacame able to see my unhealthy patterns, and how they contributed to my pain. Furthermore, I became accutely aware that I allowed most of my pain to happen to me for lack of a good boundry. Secondly, because I now have heathly boundries in my life, I can quickly tell if the person I am dating is emotionally stable based on how they handle my boundries.

    Like the woman who told her lover to get his things out by midnight, I am now easily able to assess my situation and my healthy life choices based on my findings. It is so much easier to take care of yourself this way.

    For example, in my most recent relationship, where she said all of the right things but her actions didn’t match, I started to see tiny red flags right away. However, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just judging her based on the actions of my ex wife so I hung in there. I also shared with her my experiences with my exwife, and how I was much stronger now, and that I had expectations of how I wished to be treated and what levels of communication I found exceptable, but never said I was having doubts with her. I kept seeing more and more little flags, so I finally said, you know what I have some problems with X Y and Z, and I don’t feel like they are being dealt with appropriately. The responce I got was I am sorry you feel that way, and I don’t understand why you would even think those things because I certainly don’t feel that way. I then went on explaining in great detail all of the evidence I had to support my conserns regarding her trust issues with me, and her lack of healthy communication. I had already told her that these were boundries I would not let anyone cross, and would not stay in a relationship with anyone that couldn’t treat me appropriately. I told her I couldn’t make her do anything she didn’t want to do, however, if she wanted to stay with me she was going to need to seek help. I also told her that if she chose only to go through the motions, or to start getting help, and then quit shortly after that would not be exceptable either.

    Her responce was, “I’m not perfect, but I not broken, and I don’t need to be fixed.” She never tried to rebut any of things I sighted as being issues with me. That spoke volumes! If she thought she could have proven me wrong she would have tried. That was all I needed to know. It told me she had no intentions of ever changing anything, or working on making our relationship better. The writing was on the wall, and I was out of there!

    You know what the funny thing was, I wasn’t sad at all. I knew this would have been nothing but an emotional roller coaster full of pain, so it was an easy choice not to continue on.

  12. bookyone Avatar

    Hi DG and all,

    I agree, self growth is commendable and I’m doing considerable work myself in this arena. But what do you do when every other guy you meet hasn’t done his inner homework and the ones who have aren’t interested in anything more than friendship cause they’re holding out for something better???

    I know plastic surgery worked for Pam Anderson and probably a good 90% of Hollywood’s least dressed ladies, but for those of us older gals on a limited budget who eat right and dress well, you guys need to cut us some slack. If you discriminate based solely on a woman’s outer appearance then, yes, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be single for a good long time. Take a look in the mirror, dude, if you don’t look like Brad Pitt and have his bank balance then what on Earth makes you think you’re entitled to the Angelina Jolie of your choosing???

    Best wishes from bookyone who’s tired of BS rejections based on her subnormal appearance when everything else about her is well above average…

  13. Invisible Chick Avatar
    Invisible Chick

    Interesting discussion!

    Some women never get complimented on being attractive or any other version of the word. Older men are often the worst. Women hit their 40s and bam! We’re into anti-aging potions and lotions that don’t work and cost the earth, trying to hold on to a shred of our former youth so that men will notice. Like the previojus post here, it’s not like the men are “10s” either but where are they looking? I think we all know the answer to that. Add a lifetime of not being conventionally attractive, stir in the older age, factor. What you get is Lame Duck Soup. I would hasten to add that it’s not just women who suffer this way either. Men get the same treatment about their appearance.

    Do these people need a shrink to help with them that? It’s a social issue. It’s not their fault. I submit that visiting a shrink – who sees what everyone else sees but doesn’t want to focus on the real issue – is only going to cost money.

    Instead of psychology, sociology is more in order for this problem. This is a socio-cultural issue we’re talking about here. Appearance comes first for most people. Its how we’re all wired. Personality is secondary – but when you’re considered over the hill, age is the deal-breaker. It’s natural, it’s a biological, fact . Pure and simple.

  14. walt Avatar

    I don’t agreee that the situation is as black and white as Invisible Chick suggests. Yes, some mid-life men are only interested in much younger women, but plenty are just as happy with women their own age or older. A mid-life woman can and will get compliments if she takes care of herself. Taking care of herself doesn’t mean caking on cosmetics to try to hide the wrinkles everyone gets, and are often just counter-productive, it means eating right and getting regular aerobic exercise. Most people (I know, not all) who do this consistently over time will have an attractive (not necessarily perfect) physique, will get noticed, and will get compliments.