When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a broken person. You see, I was ostracized as a teenager. I didn't fit in, few people liked me, and the ones that did were not the best friends a person could have. You could have called me socially awkward and insecure, but that would be an understatement. I fell in love with him because he was one of the few people who would give me any attention as a girl.
We began as friends. He had graduated from my high school a year before me, and when he got to college he was in the throes of a major depressive episode. He was not a very popular person himself, he had a reputation for not treating people very well, and I believe he reached out to me because I was the only person who knew little enough of him to give him a chance.
We talked almost every night, for hours, sharing our innermost secrets and fears. After roughly 6 months, we began to express physical affection, although he never asked me to be with him. During that time of being close to him, I began to heal. I began to understand that High School is just a nasty place to be, no matter who you are, and I happened to be one of the less fortunate who was not gifted with a family capable of socializing me properly. He, however, did not heal. His wounds ran much deeper than mine ever did.
Being the naive girl that I was, I stood by his side, thinking that he was just a little bit behind and all he needed was a supportive friend. My social insecurtiy had all but subsided, but my personal and relationship insecurity was still alive and well. I still didn't understand that I was not only likeable, but desireable. I was trying to "change" him because I thought that I had little chance of finding another partner. Needless to say, it didn't work.
After a few more months, he revelaed to me that he was in love with somebody else, someone who was just like him, broken and lost. You see, I had begun to challenge his behavior and opinions in an effort to make him understand himself, and he didn't like that. He just wanted to wallow. I was heartbroken, all that effort and emotional energy, all those hopes, down the drain. As I ruminated, I came to the conclusion that I had been what psychologists would call an "enabler," which means that I supported his undesirable behavior, and he fed off of my support because it meant that he didn't have to change it.
This is years gone now, but it taught me a few key lessons:
1. You can't change a person who doesn't want to change. It doesnt matter if it's something as benign as a proclivity for wallowing or as malignant as abuse or drug addiction.
2. You shouldn't try to change a person for your own means. First of all, your emotional investment taints whatever guidance you may give them. Second of all, it's really only a good deed if it's done for their benefit.
3. If you want to change someone, you do want to empathize, but you do not want to empathize so much that you get caught up in their problems. You lose any control you have over the situation.