Don’t try to change your partner. You can’t change other people; people change themselves.
You should love your partner no matter what. You should never try to change them, even if being silent is detrimental to your relationship and their relationships with others. True love, really, is letting things go.
Have you heard any of these platitudes before?
It’s common advice, especially to people in new relationships. You’re headed down a slippery slope if you think your partner will ever change; you might as well just accept that it’s not going to work out and move on.
The truth is, however, that literally no one follows this advice.
It sounds nice on paper. It makes people who say it about their own relationships feel better about themselves. It makes judgmental people who say it about others’ relationships sound holier than thou.
But it’s simply just not the truth, and the more we accept and follow this advice, the more we’re hurting our own relationships in the process.
In reality, everyone wants to change. We all want to be better people. And your partners, the people who interact with you day in and day out, who know how to communicate with you to get the point across, can help.
It’s OK to want to change your partner. In fact, it’s healthy. I know this is an unpopular opinion, so instead of starting with my thoughts, let’s journey through the history of love, the reasons we believe this advice, and the reasons we may not want to believe it anymore.
What the Romans Believe About Love
The Romans are the ones who taught us to believe that love is unconditional, that love is an emotion leading to the acceptance of an entire person, in their high and low points. English is a Roman language, and America borrows its culture from Roman ideologies.
The Romantic conception of love is that it is synonymous with acceptance - in a person’s good and bad sides, but especially their bad sides. As Ingrid Michaelson said, you love people “just the way they are.” In the same way, being loved means being endorsed for everything you are and everything you do, unconditionally.
The desire to change someone, therefore, clashes with this Roman concept of love. If you start to want to change someone, you no longer accept them for who they are, and you no longer love them. Therefore, if you want to change someone or if your partner wants to change you, your relationship is marred and, ultimately, unloving.
What the Greeks Believe About Love
The Greeks, however, did not view love as unconditional acceptance. In fact, they didn’t even view it as an emotion. The Greeks thought love was an indescribable chemical phenomenon resulting in one person inspiring awe in another person for all the things about them that are -- well, actually worthy of awe.
The Greeks accept that we are all imperfect. The most loving relationships, according to the Greeks, are those that embrace teaching and being taught. A relationship, then, isn’t a naive fawning over another person, but an opportunity to improve yourself. When love leads to uncomfortable truths, when love takes you outside of your comfort zone, that doesn’t mean you’re not compatible. In many cases, it simply means that your partner is trying to do something so true to love: to make you more loveable.
The desire to change someone, therefore, is congruent with the Greek meaning of love. After all, if anyone actually knew us properly, how would they not want to change us, to help us reach our full potential? Do we not aspire to be our best selves every day? Then, why blame others for wanting what we want for ourselves?
What the Buddhists Believe About Love
Finally, the Buddhists have interpreted love in an entirely different way: love is fully understanding another’s suffering, and that is all. The more you understand, the more you love; the more you love, the more you understand.
But what does understanding mean? And suffering - that sounds dark. To Buddhists, suffering means dissatisfaction - with work, home, or any facet of life. Someone who understands you, who listens to you, and who ultimately knows how you are suffering, is expressing love for you. Here’s a metaphor from Zen Buddhist Teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh:
The desire to change someone else, then, is simply moot until you’re able to fully understand them. If you don’t understand someone else’s suffering, you simply can’t help. You need to understand the cause of your loved one’s suffering in order to help bring relief, and even then, you may never fully understand and thus may never be able to offer the right brand of support.
What I Believe About Love
Before I met my current boyfriend, I was often afraid -- of arguing, of disagreeing, of reacting. I waded through several relationships, sometimes drifting underwater and feeling suffocated by my own ineptitude, before realizing that I was scared of becoming what society had deemed “that girl.”
You know the girl I’m talking about. I was scared of becoming the girl who’s “only in that relationship to change the other person.” So I bit my tongue when my former boyfriend picked fights about my schoolwork. I faded into the wallpaper when he started harmful arguments with my friends or with his own friends.
I told myself, every day, that today I would speak up. But I didn’t. Until one summer, when I was finally single, one question changed the way I thought about relationships:
Does being scared of changing your partner inhibit honest communication?
Every relationship has a bit of the Romans, a bit of the Greeks, and a bit of the Buddhists in it. No relationship is absolutely perfect. But I’ve found that the relationships in which both parties are straightforward about their opinions and are aware, respectful, and supportive of each other’s goals and ambitions are by far the happiest.
So no, your relationship is not a DIY project. But neither is it an endorsement of your failings. It’s a partnership where both partners are trying to become their best selves, however awkwardly. In my relationship, we take on projects together to improve our physical and emotional well-being.
Last year, for example, I decided to start running. I often said, “I’ll never be that fit,” but Tommy, a runner himself, knew the root of my suffering - a mixture of restlessness and boredom - and simultaneously offered to run with me for support while helping to diagnose the real problem: that I wasn’t feeling challenged enough at work.
It’s true that it’s unlikely that your partner’s personality will change, or that a chronically abusive relationship will become healthy, but it’s also true that love should be a nurturing attempt by two people to reach their full potential.