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Can you or your partner ever change?

Updated: Nov 22, 2021

Love is becoming better people together. Part 7 in the “Love is...” series.

How is love different from friendship? After all, you can surely be friends with the love of your life. And we commonly say we love our friends. But when we join our lives with someone we love, living together, building a life together, something different from friendship is going on. What is it?

One thing that’s different, I think, is this. The expectations are different. As a generality, friendship is based on acceptance. I accept my friend for who she is, she accepts me for who I am. Warts and all. And how do we make it work? The dirty little secret about how we can be so accepting of our friends is distance. We don’t live with them. Lots of times we wouldn’t want to. And that’s okay.

Live-in, lifetime lovers are a whole different thing. If, as they say, “no man is a hero to his valet,” then the person you’re going to be living with is pretty much going to be guaranteed to be a project.

Now ideally it works like this. You and I meet. We both recognize that we love the dickens out of each other but still I know I could be a much better person and you know you could be a much better person. And you know I know you could be a better person. And if you don’t know, at some point I’m almost certain to let you know. And vice versa.

So one way or another, committed long-term relationships become mutual improvement associations.

How does love get dragged into this? Because of the ways love is hope. The dream of love being that things start out great and—what!?!—get better! So that somehow through our caring for each other I become a better person over time and so do you.

And when that happens, it feels that love has been fruitful. It’s made good things happen. It’s made better people happen.

The key to all of this is the phrase “somehow through our caring.” That somehow through our caring for each other we both become better people.

Tragically this can turn into the very same process that destroys love and the relationship. I would, you think, be a better person if I weren’t such a worrywart and, in the end, such a nag. But I worry so much and nag so much because you’re so irresponsible and inconsiderate, and how much of a better person would you be if you weren’t like that!

Where does caring end and warfare start?

I actually know the answer to that! And it’s the difference between a fruitful AND happy marriage versus a futile AND miserable one.

The answer lies in the degree to which you and I buy in to the changes we’re talking about. You’re going to be able to work with me if I want to change. I’m going to seem like an impossible, implacable enemy if I don’t want to change. (Or if I pretend to want to change but never do.)

That’s the difference between heaven and hell here. Love indeed is becoming better people together as an agreed upon joint enterprise, where the changes themselves are agreed upon.

What do you do about this in your relationship?

Well, here I go with the lists again.

Write down three things about your partner that you’d like to see change. Then write down three things you think your partner has been trying to change about you.

Your partner should write down the same lists.

Then compare and talk.

But make sure to dig down when you talk. Let’s say your partner has said, on their list, that they want you to be more empathetic. And you’ve actually been aware of their saying that.

So ask, “Well, what exactly do you mean by empathetic? Give me a few examples of how I’ve actually been and what that would’ve looked like if I’d been empathetic in your eyes. Words I should have said. Things I should have done, or not done.”

Don’t argue with your partner’s description of how you’ve been. That’s their perception. The only issue is their description of what they’re hoping for. Given what they’ve described as empathetic, do you understand that? Can you do that? Do you want to do that? Is there any reason why you wouldn’t be able to do that on your own?

That’s what there is to talk about: what you can or cannot deliver.

Then you can talk about how your partner can help you help them get what they want. Maybe there’s something they do that makes it hard for you to be empathetic. So you talk about that.

If there are obstacles, you talk about them.

In other words, you talk about this like two people trying to help one person be a better person with respect to one behavior. It’s a problem-solving session, not a scolding or rescuing-my-self-esteem session.

Worst case? You wake up to the reality that one or both of you has no real interest or hope of changing in ways that are crucial to the other. Then you’ll just have to deal with that.

But much, much more likely, you’ll have breathed life into your relationship by making it a place where you become better people together.

There's a lot of specific, practical help with this in our new book Why Couples Fight.

(That picture of the man with the stick and the boy at the table with the book is from a scene in Dickens' David Copperfield. David does want to learn, but his step-father, Mr. Murdstone, is so cold and threatening that he scares the ability to think right out of poor David.)


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