No matter how hard you try, you can’t change another person. Even a trained psychotherapist can’t change somebody without their consent and effort. It is, however, still possible to influence others. But success presupposes that the subject is open to being influenced. Or more specifically, open to reason and rational persuasion.
One of the major contexts where I see people inappropriately trying to change others is in marriage. After they’re married, many individuals recognize that there are certain things about their spouse they’d like to change. It’s not merely that they want their partner to change a few habits, or forge a rational compromise agreeable to both sides. Rather, they seek a wholesale change in some aspect of their partner’s personality and psyche.
A good example is a letter I received from a Delaware Wave reader: “My wife wants me to change on a very deep level. But I believe I’m just fine. She’s insisting I go to therapy by myself to change. I’m not opposed to therapy; I’ve even gone to a therapist from time to time. But I don’t see that I need to do anything differently from what I’m doing now. What should I do?”
I responded like this: At this point, your wife needs the therapy more than you do. She should figure out what she really wants, rather than trying to mold you into what she feels she wants right now. You should face the fact that it’s a contradiction to be romantically involved with someone who wants you to change “on a very deep level.” If you really should change; say, if you’re an alcoholic or a moocher, then she can’t – and shouldn’t – be in love with you. Why? Because you have a relationship-destroying flaw that must be corrected before becoming involved with anyone. If you don’t necessarily need to change, i.e., if your personality style is not quite what she’d like, or your tone of voice is sometimes not what she’d prefer, or you have a hobby that is not destructive but that she doesn’t like, then why make sacrifices for someone, no matter how much you love them? You might not even be able to change what she wants you to change; assuming she can even define it.
The overwhelming majority of relationships flounder because one or both partners want the other to change. Love must be based upon actuality, not potentiality. Ask your wife to first get help for herself to understand this fact. Then perhaps more things will be possible for both of you. The basic, ruling principle on the subject of changing versus influencing others is this: Always be open for opportunities to influence somebody on an issue or behavior that is important to you. But when trying to influence others, make sure to approach them from their self-interested point of view. Don’t ask people to change for your sake, rather, suggest they make a change for their own sake. And mean it.
If somebody is not open to reason or discussion on a certain subject, then accept this fact and move on. I recognize this might mean, in the most extreme case, moving on without people who were once important to you. But it’s better than acting out the psychological equivalent of banging your head against a wall over and over again. Life is too precious for that.
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