"don't try to change me": the importance of loving and accepting your mate

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.


Miz Z said...

Saying something doesn't necessarily mean that the relationship will end. I would like to think that two mature adults that love each other would be able to handle some sort of suggestion without dramatic antics. When my husband and I started dating, I remember him doing something that didn't sit well and I was angry, teary, etc. He just asked me to stop and tell him exactly what he did that bothered me. Not what he did "wrong", but what bothered ME. After talking about it, he said he would try to change it. Same goes for me. If something I do bothers him so much that he takes the trouble to talk to me about it, then it's something worth looking into. If for no other reason than the fact that I love him and want to keep him happy. Now if it's something that absolutely can't be changed (not because we're both being hard-headed), then it turns into something we must learn to live with. Ending the marriage and walking away is not an option-although there have been days..... lol

Haley said...

Trying to change a partner is such a fundamental issue for so many relationships, that I'm sorry it still has to be talked about. It is what it is though. You will not be able to make someone change. Two people can help one another grow, but they are growing together, not with one standing on a pedestal looking down at the other one. If you're having trouble in a relationship it may not be a bad idea to seek some outside advice either from religious leaders, close friends, psychics in Sydney, or someone else that you trust. But understand, it's in your hands in the end and it's up to you to decide what is best for you.

Kristine Fry said...

Speaking your truth as a woman is just as important as it is for a man to be heard also. If both partners are truly committed in a relationship all issues and 'stuck points' get moved on in time with greater understanding and form a stronger bond and foundation for everlasting deep love which is almost the opposite of the fiery romantic love we are all led to believe is what relationship is meant to be all the time. Once we settle into the ordinary form of love and truly accept each other literally 'warts and all' so much more intimacy happens at a greater depth.

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