Do you tend to see your partner as a “fixer-upper” kind of man or woman? Sure, you love him or her-- but there are certain aspects about your mate that, to you, need fixing or improving. Perhaps you spend your time either subtly (or more overtly) working to help your partner become more organized, cultured, refined, in shape, etc. Maybe your love appreciates your fixing up efforts and maybe he or she resents or feels bad about your improvement attempts.

On the other hand, you might be the one the “fixing-up” is directed towards. You may have settled into the role of the person who falls short of the mark in some way in your relationship. Truth be told, you might even feel most comfortable in this role. While you are aware of your partner's efforts to make changes or “improvements” in who you are, you actually prefer to stay the same.

The dangerous dynamic in scenarios like this is that one person pushes change and judges his or her mate to be inadequate in some way. The other person feels pushed and judged as inappropriate or lacking and closes down to new experiences or changes that he or she might otherwise have been open to. The relationship is a “fixer-upper” not because it is inherently flawed or even because the one who wants change is ultimately to blame.

Instead, this type of relationship is dangerous because, for whatever reason, the two people involved continue to shut one another down and move further apart. The closeness and connection is strained as they play this dance of lack.

The “fixer upper” relationship dynamic was the focus of a recent sitcom storyline. On the television show “Gary Unmarried,” the main character-- Gary-- starts dating an attractive woman who teaches at his kids' school. Gary and the teacher go on several dates and are really drawn to one another. What Gary begins to feel, however, is that his new partner is treating him like a “fixer upper.”

Gary's girlfriend encourages him to go to the opera, ballet and fancier coffeehouses-- none of these are places he'd normally go. When Gary started to feel like his girlfriend was trying to improve and change him, he immediately closed down, felt resentful and even manipulated. Gary's girlfriend argued that she was only trying to expose him to new things, not trying to change him.

Needless to say, both Gary and his girlfriend felt hurt and misunderstood. Both had to step back and really examine their motives, intentions and wants.

Recognize your tendencies....
You might identify most readily with Gary or with his girlfriend in this situation. After all, one can see the benefits of both perspectives. As you get to know a person in a romantic relationship context, it can be enriching to experience new things and learn from one another. But, it is also a wonderful feeling to know that your partner fell in love with you for who you are-- not for who they want you to be.

Taking a gentle approach with yourself, pay attention to your tendencies. Perhaps you are sometimes the one trying to change or improve your partner and other times you are the one feeling inadequate and unappreciated for who you are right now. Either way, just get a clearer idea of the role you play most of the time in your relationship.

Do your tendencies serve you, your partner or your relationship?
Now ask yourself if the way you usually think about and treat your partner serves you, him or her and your relationship? Does the “fixing up” approach help move you two closer together or further apart? How does it feel inside when you shut down in the face of your mate's suggestions to try something new?

Again, be gentle with yourself and approach this in an observational way. You might ask your love how it feels to him or her when you behave in a “fixing up” or closed down sort of way-- depending on your tendencies. Just listen and try to learn from what you are hearing. Contrast the way you feel about your current tendencies with how you want to feel in this relationship.

Step outside your usual mode.
So you know what your tendencies are and you have a clearer idea of how they feel to you and possibly the emotions triggered in your mate because of them. It's time to step outside your usual mode. You might make a list of ways that you could act or react differently. Just try out some alternatives to your status quo and see how it feels. What do you notice in terms of your mate's response? Do you feel closer or further away from your love as a result? Pay attention and do more of what increases your connection.

At the conclusion of this “Gary Unmarried” episode, Gary finally sees that his partner wasn't necessarily trying to manipulate him or judge him as inadequate. He goes to her and apologizes. He even agrees to attend a ballet with her that weekend. For her part, Gary's girlfriend eases up and pushes less. She is willing to participate in activities Gary likes as well.

When you choose to try a different action or reaction, you can create space for a new and expanded connection. Check in with yourself and your partner to see how you both feel. This will also help you move closer together.

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