‘My boyfriend has no ambition’

Dr. Gail Saltz advises a girl on what to do about her unmotivated partner
By Gail Saltz
TODAYShow.com contributor

Q. I love my boyfriend and have never been happier, but he has no ambition. While it's not a problem now because we are young and I am still in college, I am afraid it will be one day down the line. He has absolutely no dreams other than to live life. But he has so much talent and he takes brilliant pictures. If he had the motivation to apply himself, he could be a great photographer.

I feel this is a problem because I have big dreams and when I am done with school, I am going for them. I want to spend the rest of my life with this man and I do not want him to settle for anything less than his best or my best, for that matter. How do I help him believe in himself and make him see that there is more to life?

A. You might not be able to.

It’s not clear what elements go into making a person driven or ambitious, but obviously this personality characteristic comprises many factors. Some people are born with a more intense, assertive, demonstrative temperament than others. There is also a psychological component to this, which you note when you ask how you can make him believe in himself. Some people are truly conflicted about succeeding and therefore avoid it.

Your assumption is that he doesn’t believe in himself and therefore he doesn’t try. That’s possible. Some people are so lacking in confidence that they don’t try because they believe they will fail.

Others merely lack intensity. They may not feel the need to be exceptionally successful, and truly find pleasure in the moment rather than striving toward the future.

It’s not that somebody who lacks drive and ambition is bad or flawed, but such a person has a different personality than you do. If this is truly a pervasive part of your boyfriend’s nature — if he never feels that any work effort is worthwhile — that can be a problem for a couple. The same goes for any big difference in a significant domain in life, such as future goals.

It sounds like you want your boyfriend to change but he is content with how he is. Pointing out how he could change, and the advantages of doing so, either will or won’t move him to action.

But if you have been trying to change him and it isn’t working, I suspect he is just a laid-back kind of guy. It may simply not be in his temperament to be competitive. If this is the case, marriage to this man will make for a lot of frustration.

If you could truly be happy to take the lead and be the breadwinner, that would be fine. In fact, some people want to be the star of their relationship and don’t do well with a competitive spouse. But if it is important to you to be part of a power team and you need a husband who shares your passion for goals and success, then this kind of difference can truly erode your future: He might get tired of hearing that you don’t like the way he is. You might end up feeling contempt and disdain for his lack of ambition. You might feel ashamed of him in the presence of your friends and colleagues.

If you have children, these issues come to bear in your parenting style. Some parents push their kids to achieve; others take a hands-off approach. This is yet another realm where you might butt heads.

So if you can’t change your man’s behavior and you can’t change your own attitude, you should take a pause and examine whether this relationship can work well for the long term. This isn’t a small, easily-ignored issue.

Look inside yourself to see if this will be an ongoing source of disappointment and frustration for you, and if you will always wish to turn your man into something he is not. It might be worth exploring this issue with a couples counselor, who could shed further insight with an objective third-party view.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: A fundamental difference in life approaches can erode a relationship if one partner doesn’t take action.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.

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