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How Can I Be Sure He’s Really Changed?

“Am I crazy?” wonders Barbie, 38. Barbie’s grandfather was an alcoholic and so was her favorite uncle. “I saw firsthand the damage that alcoholism can do to a family, and I swore I’d never marry anyone with a drinking problem. So what do I do? I marry an alcoholic. After 15 years and two children, I divorced him - and now I’m thinking of marrying him again!”

Barbie was working as a executive secretary when she met Eliot, who was just starting his own computer services company, on a blind date. “He was everything I was looking for - intelligent, gentle, romantic.” When he asked her to marry him, she immediately said yes.

Though Eliot had never drunk more than a can of beer or two glasses of wine in her presence, Barbie had the unsettled feeling that something was wrong. “He was secretive about the time he spent away from work and from me,” she recalls. “Sometimes I even had the feeling he’d had a few drinks before he came home.”

Those doubts, however, were few and far between: “Eliot’s new business was doing well, and to my great joy, I got pregnant within six months.”

But then everything changed. “I had quit my job to stay home with our daughter, and I was starved for adult companionship,” Barbie recalls. “Instead of being with me and the baby after work, he spent more and more time drinking with his friends.” By the time their son was born a year later, “Eliot was the man who wasn’t there,” she adds.

Slowly, their marriage disintegrated. “There was no big battle, just years of loneliness,” Barbie says. “I hated Eliot for what he was doing to our family, and I hated the whiny, nagging wife I’d become. One morning I realized I had to get out of that marriage.” She asked her husband to move out and filed for divorce.

A few months ago, Barbie injured her back moving furniture and needed surgery for a herniated disk. “Eliot volunteered to move in and help out until I was back on my feet,” Barbie says. “It was wonderful having him around.” The night before he was to leave, Eliot took her to dinner at their favorite restaurant. “When we got home, we made love and the sex was better than it had been in years.”

Now, Barbie is torn. She loves Eliot, knows he’s not drinking anymore, and he’s as romantic as he used to be, “but he still withdraws when problems surface, and when it comes to disciplining two teenagers, he makes me look like the ogre. Instead of helping me deal with them, he disappears to another AA meeting. Even the little things - like picking up the dry cleaning and fixing the broken window screens - he promises to do just don’t happen. How can I be sure he’s going to be there for me?”

Eliot, 40, is beginning to wonder if Barbie will ever believe that he’s really changed. “When I do what Barbie wants, she’s warm and loving, but if I disagree with her, she’s as cold and critical as my mother used to be.” Barbie, he adds, is so sure she’s right, she never gives him a chance to voice his opinion.

Eliot has tried hard during the past year to prove to his former wife that he’s a different person, “but as soon as we get into a disagreement, she acts just like she always did. With her, I can never wipe my slate clean.”

Setting limits that make sense

“The only way Barbie, or anyone, can learn to trust again is by setting limits to protect herself,” says Jane Greer, PhD, a marriage and sex therapist in New York City. “The key to setting limits is not to try to get the other person to change. Rather, it’s an opportunity to set forth your own bottom line - that is, to determine exactly what you expect from any relationship in your life.”

There are three key elements to doing this. If lingering doubts are preventing you from placing your trust in someone, ask yourself:

1. What precisely is my expectation for this person in my life?

2. How much disappointment am I willing to tolerate? In other words, which behaviors can I accept and ultimately forgive, and which will I never condone?

3. Exactly what new actions will you take if the untrustworthy behavior occurs again?

By thinking through these points, Barbie was able to talk more calmly with Eliot whenever she felt he wasn’t supporting her. As the hostility simmering inside her ebbed, she was able to accept the fact that Eliot might not be there on some issues - for instance, fixing the screens - but she could not accept his failure to support her when it came to discipline issues.