“He/She’d be so perfect if he just…”
Blame it on movies like She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You—but most of us believe (secretly or not) that we’ve got the power to reshape the right guy into our ideal mate. “We want to live that fairytale and believe that love can conquer all,” says psychologist Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., author of Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Here’s the reality—to get along with another human being over the long term, adjustments and transitions have to be made. Case in point: If one of you hates cats and the other desperately wants a kitten, one of you will have to cave to the other’s desires (eventually).
But what’s actually possible when it comes to changing a core aspect of someone’s being?
Have you ever dated — or even gone on one date with — someone and thought, if I could just change this one thing, they’d be the perfect person for me? Whether it was attempting to teach someone to be a better communicator, requesting they commit to more real date nights, or asking them to make a better effort with your friends, we’ve all tried to engineer change in someone we’re seeing. For most people — like, you know, me — I’d assume their efforts were met with little success. But, despite the horror stories of Frankenstein-ing a suitor, we keep trying.
“A lot of [the desire to change someone] comes from this [idea] that our partner needs to be our everything,” says Michele Burstein, LCSW, a psychotherapist at Manhattan Wellness Associates. “[No one] is every single thing, so how can someone expect that of a partner?” She’s right — it’s an unrealistic ask. No one is the whole package (not even me). We’re all works in progress, and you’re not going to meet someone who excels at life in every way — it’d be kind of exhausting to be with a person like that. Plus, we don’t expect this all-in-one deal from anyone else besides our . We rely on one friend for undivided attention, one coworker for career advice, and one family member to always pick up the phone.
But wait, there’s more! Le sigh. Not only are we socially conditioned to think a romantic partner needs to have it all, we also fall victim to the “scarcity mindset,” says Burstein. We think we have to mold this person into exactly what we want because there’s no one else out there. On a rational level, we understand there are plenty of cheese balls in the Costco-sized container, but still, it makes you wonder: Is it really possible to change someone you’re dating, or are we better off either accepting them as they are or dipping back into the container?
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“My initial reaction is [that you cannot change someone],” says Burstein. “That being said, when we look at a [partner], we’re looking at two parts of the person,” she says. The first is the foundation of who they are and their personality — you can’t really change that. You’re not going to turn an introvert into an extrovert. Maybe you can get them to venture out of their comfort zone a little bit more, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to suddenly find themselves energized by being with other people. If you expect that, you’re going to make them anxious and uncomfortable, which is not something you want to inflict on someone you care about.
The second part is who the person is in a relationship, Burstein says. This includes things like how they communicate, how trusting they are, and where they set boundaries. Maybe they are used to keeping their phone out at dinner, and you don’t like that. You can be vulnerable, express that it upsets you, ask them to put it away, and there’s a fair chance they will adjust what is merely a habit.
All that is to say that in a relationship (and elsewhere, for that matter), there are ways people do change and grow, but they do not fundamentally change who they are. It’s up to you whether you can accept or not accept their way of operating.
Getting on board with that, however, isn’t always so simple. Sometimes you may feel like you’re settling or, on the flipside, like you’re being too tough. But instead of getting lost in an abyss of overanalysis, you need to start with a simple truth: there is no perfect. Ask yourself: What is non-negotiable? What do you need to feel good in the relationship? Maybe the person you’re seeing is not the most outgoing in large groups, but you love spending time with them. Do you still like them as a person? How often do you go to a party where this really matters?
“It’s like buying a car,” says Burstein. “You have a million things you want: Bluetooth, a sunroof, red interior, black exterior, etc. And then there’s a car that matches that almost exactly, but the interior is tan and not red. Is that something that is really going to make you not enjoy this car as much? [Does it have the things you] really need, like a working engine, good brakes, and four-wheel drive?” It’s the same thing in a relationship — will this one suboptimal quality really prove to be a deal breaker in the grand scheme of things?
Besides, most of the time, things don’t work out in favor of the person hoping to change someone.
10 reasons why you have to stop trying to change someone:
- Your partner is not going to change. In other words, you can’t change a cat into a dog. Love just isn’t enough to change a person’s basic nature and upbringing. If you fall in love with someone who is reserved and you are more outgoing and need outward signs of affection to feel secure, you’ll feel chronically dissatisfied. Most likely, these differences will probably eat away at loving feelings over time and erode positive feelings in your relationship.
- Rather than trying to “fix’ your partner, focus on improving your own life. Many people stay in dysfunctional relationships with the unconscious desire to change their partner. According to codependency and relationship expert, Ross Rosenberg, this pattern is common and couples often stay in highly dysfunctional relationships to their own detriment. Rosenberg notes, “The inherently dysfunctional “codependency dance” requires two opposite but distinctly balanced partners: the pleaser/fixer (codependent) and the taker/controller (narcissist).”
- Focusing on changing your partner can prevent you from focusing on the issues at hand. Ask yourself: what am I trying to accomplish? Avoid name-calling and don’t attack your partner personally. Remember anger is usually a symptom of underlying hurt, fear, and frustration so keep things in perspective. Avoid defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, etc.).
- When you change your perspective the way you look at things will change. This doesn’t mean you should tolerate any kind of abuse or disrespect. It means that your expectations impact the way you feel about your partner and his/her action. In general, you will be as happy or disappointed with your romantic relationship depending on how well your perceptions of what is happening match your expectations.
- It can prevent you and your partner from communicating honestly about key issues in your relationship. Be sure to be forthcoming about your concerns and express your thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a respectful way. Stop the “blame game” and examine your part in disputes or conflict.
- Focusing on changing someone allows wounds to fester. Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about your partner’s behavior when you find it to be negative. Listen to your partner’s side of the story. Are there times when you feel mistrustful or hurt even when he/she presents evidence to the contrary about your grievance?
- Trying to change your partner interferes with your ability to practice forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t the same as condoning the hurt done to you but it will allow you to move on. Try to remember you are on the same team. Accept that people do the best they can and try to be more understanding. This doesn’t mean that you accept your partner’s hurtful actions. You simply come to a more realistic view and give them less power over you. If your relationship is basically healthy, develop a mindset of acceptance and forgiveness about daily disappointments. After all, none of us is perfect. Don’t let it impact you greatly and you try to let go of small annoyances.
- Take responsibility for your part in the conflict or dispute and you will promote good will. One person’s ability to do this can change the dynamic of the relationship. Julie and John Gottman write: “one person’s response will literally change the brain waves of the other person.” Apologize to your partner when appropriate. This will validate their feelings and promote forgiveness and allow you both to move on.
- Trying to change your partner can lead to the end of your relationship. In Dr. Gottman’s acclaimed book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail he posits that criticizing your partner is one of the main causes of divorce. It is different from offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an attack on the person. Consequently, you are cutting to the core of their character when you criticize. For instance, a complaint is: “I was worried when you were late. We agreed that you’d call when you were running late.” Versus a criticism: “You never think about me, you’re so selfish!”
- Focusing on changing your partner doesn’t allow you to be vulnerable. While self-sufficiency and autonomy can help you weather the storms of life, it can also rob you of true intimacy. For a relationship to be balanced, partners must be able to depend on one another and feel that they are needed and appreciated for the support they give. Trying to change your partner can prevent you from influencing each other and achieving true intimacy.
What You Can Change
It’s highly unusual that a guy or lady is going to walk into your life who doesn’t have a few annoying habits that need to be nipped, like leaving his/her underwear on the floor, subsisting solely off of chips, or showing up late every so often to dinner. The good news is that these are all behaviors that can be changed.
The bad news: It’s unlikely that your eternal happiness is going to ride on him/her picking up his/her underwear or going cold turkey on his/her Cool Ranch Dorito addiction. (If that does mess with your happiness, it’s probably not about the chips) But with some commitment, like explaining that you feel like you’re playing housekeeper when you pick up his/her underwear, those bad habits can slowly be fixed.
You’re not going to meet someone who excels at life in every way — it’d be kind of exhausting to be with a person like that. Plus, we don’t expect this all-in-one deal from anyone else.
ALSO READ: 23 Unexpected Signs of Attraction According to Experts
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7 Reasons Why it’s a Good Idea to Stay Single
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