Should You Accept a Partner as Is or Ask Them to Change?

6 min read
Pavel Muravev/iStock

Pavel Muravev/iStock

Let’s face it: At a certain point in any relationship we start to notice that this fabulous person does things that irritate or hurt us. The fit between two people is never perfect or frictionless. Eventually you’ll find yourself in conversations about change–usually about the things you each want the other to change. The ultimate change, of course, is to break it off altogether. But if you don’t want to leave, you need to get better at making changes.

Can people really change?

Couples often ask me, “Can people really change?” On the one hand, they are there in my office because they are hoping and believing, or at least wanting to believe, that they can change. On the other hand, they remain dubious about this possibility–afraid of change, afraid that they cannot change, and afraid of the risk and vulnerability of trying. They have typically been trying, sometimes for a long time, to make changes but have not succeeded.

As with anything in life, successful change depends on trying the right way. No matter how many times you try to shoe a horse with an egg you won’t succeed. Furthermore, concluding that lack of success means that there’s something wrong with either the egg or the horse would be a serious misinterpretation.

A better question is: Under what conditions do people change?

Embrace learning instead of perfection

Couples’ skepticism about change is interesting, since these same people do believe in learning, which, if you think about it, is another word for the kinds of changes couples are wondering about. So why, then, is it so hard to interest a partner in learning? Beyond the fact that learning can be hard, it implies that there is something we don’t know yet and aren’t yet good at. Far too often we feel that a request for change, or for learning, means that we’ve failed–as if we should already be great at everything.

We seem to expect to ourselves and our partners to arrive fully able to deliver the relationship we’ve dreamed of. This expectation gets in the way. In fact, the things we must know and be capable of to be great partners are complicated, difficult, and learned over a lifetime: Things like patience, self-reflection, dealing with conflict, and collaboration. We learn these things in our relationships.

When people ask me what to look for in a potential partner I tell them to find someone who’s excited about learning.

Be a good learning partner

A man in a couple I was working with declared, “It’s not my job to teach her how to be more loving!” Another client exclaimed with exasperation about her partner’s annoying habit of criticizing her in front of other, “It’s not my job to teach him how to behave!”

Actually, it is.

Because of our interconnectedness, we profoundly influence each other, for better or worse. And though it’s not solely “your job”–your partner has to want and work for their changes–you do have a vital role to play in their learning. Among the things you each must learn is how to assist, rather then impede, the other’s progress. Commitment to a relationship is not about doggedly hanging in there, no matter what. Commit to helping your partner learn.

My husband likes to riff that I have made more “progress” than he. But, he adds mischievously, that’s because he’s a better teacher than I am.

Solve the puzzle of the interactions

Playwright Tony Kushner said, “The smallest indivisible human unit is two.” One of the conditions for change in couples is that they understand themselves as an interactive system.

The power for positive change starts with your ability to entertain this hypothesis: that the difficulty is the result of an interaction. Which means that even when it seems like the difficulty is caused solely by your partner, you still look beyond that; you question the “seemingness” of this reality and ask, “What might I be doing that’s part of this problem?” Or even, “What am I doing that makes it harder, rather than easier, for my partner to change?”

Relationships Essential Reads

Ram and Sid love going to the beach together. Ram is great at getting the picnic together; Sid studies the map and figures out how to get to a new beach they want to explore. This collaboration works well.

Now let’s add a couple of kids.

Ram and Sid still love the beach, but increasingly Sid is terrible at finding the route, gets cranky during the drive, and they arrive late and in a fight. Ram complains often about the crankiness. Sid tries very hard to not be cranky, but the behavior only gets worse.

When they finally talk about it, they discover a pattern: In order to put together the picnic, Ram has left Sid to get the kids ready and keep them happy in the hour leading up to getting in the car. This leaves Sid with no time to study the map. Once they figure this out, both feel relieved and creative problem-solving ensues.

Link acceptance of the present to a vision of change for the future

A friend once said to me about her marriage, “I’ve tried so hard to just accept him and not try to change him.” To her surprise, my response was, “Why!?” Why either/or, as if acceptance is what we do instead of change? Acceptance is actually a vital part of successful change. Part of who we are is that we are capable of learning and changing. Full acceptance includes acceptance of this capacity for change.

Acceptance uncoupled from expecting change reflects the belief that “people are who they are,” and that they don’t change. This is not acceptance but resignation. You collaborate for positive change by accepting both who who your partner is today and who they might become. The vision inspires us; acceptance helps us to be patient and loving for learning that is often both long and hard.

What could your relationship be if you committed to the adventure of helping each other become better at loving?

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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