I recently had a phone conversation with
my mom a person who wishes to remain nameless on my blog. We were talking about making relationships work and getting along with the person you've chosen to spend your life with and all of the complications that come along with that (deep, right?). At one point during our conversation, I was compelled to say, "You can't change him. You just have to love him for who he is and not for who you want him to be." She replied with, "I know, but it's hard sometimes."
She's right. It is really difficult. We all have these idealized images of who we want our partners to be; how we want them to talk, what kind of job we want them to have, how we think they should look, what we think they should believe in, which personality traits we want them to exemplify, and the list could go on and on. Unfortunately, when our mates don't live up to the (sometimes unreasonable) standards, we try to change something about them.
This conversation reminded me of a line of research I was reading about last week. Researchers, Nickola Overall, Garth Fletcher, and Jeffry Simpson published a study in 2006 showing that the more effort a partner exerts towards attempting to change his/her mate (in terms of the mate's level of trustworthiness, attractiveness, or status), the lower the reported relationship quality is for that relationship. So even though the intention by the change-eliciting partner is usually to improve the relationship, he or she is actually damaging it. The researcher’s explanation argued that higher levels of partner regulation signal lack of acceptance and negative views about the partner, which in turn, can damage the relationship.
So what are you supposed to do? Here's my suggestion. If you're in a relationship and you feel like you're wanting to change some fundamental aspect of your mate (something that makes him or her "who they are"), give it a little more thought before you go talking to your partner about it. Ask yourself if it's something that you can live with. If you can, then don't mention it. It's not worth it. It could create feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and/or low self-esteem in your partner. However, if you can't live with it; if it's something that bothers you to your core, then you need to either say something to your partner (knowing that it could end your relationship) or end the relationship yourself. Sorry Charlie, but that's the bottom line.
**An addendum to the above post: I just wanted to be clear that I (and the cited study) am talking about trying to change something about your partner that is central to who they are; something that they have little or no control over. For example, no matter how much you try, it would be very difficult for you to get your mate to be more outgoing at parties if he or she is an introvert. Or, to try and improve your partner's lack of career ambition. Or even better, to get your mate to be more physically attractive. Your attempts at making this kind of change in someone will likely end badly. And let me also be clear that I am an advocate of talking to your partner about problems in your relationship. If your mate has said or done something to you that made you sad/angry/offended/embarrassed, you should definitely take the time to say something.**
Overall, N. C., Fletcher, G. J. O., & Simpson, J. A. (2006). Regulation processes in intimate relationships: The role of ideal standards. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 662-688.