Dear Man Shrink,
I want my boyfriend to go to counseling, but he refuses. We’ve been living together for two years and we intend to get married, but he doesn’t behave like an adult yet. He’s thirty-three, he has a good IT job, and manages his money well, but he has some childish interests that he needs to ditch before I can feel okay about marrying him. For example, he’s a science fiction fanatic, and he doesn’t just watch it on television. He collects memorabilia, including action figures—dolls! He doesn’t take them out of the box; he just lines bookshelves with them. He goes to these big conventions, even flying to San Diego every year for some stupid comic book convention. He also likes playing video games too much for my tastes. He doesn’t do it very much when I’m around, but he’ll sometimes stay up for hours after I’m asleep, playing online with a bunch of other nerds.
I want him to get counseling because I think he’s avoiding growing up. He’s a responsible guy and really nice to me overall, but he refuses to let go of these juvenile hobbies. I think he’s fixated at age twelve or something. I’d love your advice on how to get him to go to therapy.—PL, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Let’s talk about getting someone to go to therapy. Then you and I are going to have a little “come to Jesus” talk.
Almost once a week, someone asks me how to persuade a disordered friend, family member, or lover to go to therapy. Here’s the short answer: you can’t. Now, listen very closely to what I’m about to say. If you happen to be a judge or social worker reading along, tattoo the following sentence on your forearm.
Psychotherapy only works for people who want it to work.
You cannot frighten, harangue, or cajole someone into mental health. Psychotherapists are not drill sergeants, psychics, or Jedi Knights. We cannot convince someone that they need to change. Resorting to A Clockwork Orange-type methods are the only way to modify the behavior of someone who doesn’t think they need it. So unless you plan on hooking your boyfriend up to electrodes and zapping him every time he plays with his Boba Fett Pez dispenser, the guy is not going to change.
Now let’s talk about whether your boyfriend even needs to change.
If you told me that he was irresponsible, I might have agreed that he’s avoiding reality. But it sounds like he’s very much an adult in the sense that he has a career, manages his money well, and treats you with love and respect. He doesn’t sound immature; you do.
Psychologist and author Ryan Howes says, “Intimacy starts with ‘I’.” This means that two people can have genuine intimacy only if they’re both being authentic. Collecting action-figures and blowing up strangers online is part of who your boyfriend is. If you insist that he change those things and he acquiesces, you won’t be getting a grown up. You’ll be getting a man who decided to shut down. If he stops doing the things he loves just for you, you’ll have an amoeba instead of a man, a pet instead of a paramour.
By no means do you have to share his excitement about Halo 3 and plastic hobbits. Pursue your own interests and leave him free to pursue his. This is a problem only if there aren’t things the two of you enjoy together. If he’s neglecting you and spending all of his time in the garage building models of the Starship Enterprise, then things need to change. Even if this is the case, your complaint should be that he doesn’t spend enough time with you, not that he’s a dork who needs to grow up.
You need to fall in love with someone who’s a little different than you are. Otherwise, you’re just loving yourself instead someone who’s separate and whole. Watching Battlestar Galactica doesn’t make someone immature; wanting to marry yourself in drag does.
You have two choices: (1) Let the guy have his fun while telling him that you want to spend time with him doing things you both like. (2) Dump him and find a guy who likes to . . . what? Watch the financial news? Check out swatches at Home Depot? Go moose hunting? Do you even know what “grown up” means to you? My hunch is that someone has hurt you by being immature and irresponsible. Regardless, I think this is more about you than him. Perhaps you’re the one who should give therapy a whirl.
By the way, let me tell you a little story about those action figures your boyfriend loves so much. The last time I was at my parent’s house, I discovered a Luke Skywalker action figure that was one of my favorite toys when I was eight years old. The paint had faded and poor Luke’s lightsaber was broken. It’s not worth very much. If it were still in the box, however, I could get almost a thousand bucks for the whiny little Jedi on eBay. It’s appreciated over 250 percent since 1978. Not a bad investment. Yes, your boyfriend might be stuffing your bookshelves with childish trash. Or he could have your kids’ college tuition up there. Maybe he’s more grown up than you think.
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