If you are looking for a short answer, and don’t feel like reading the whole article, here is the answer: no, people don’t change in relationships. (Did I just hear you gasp?)
I know, I know, it is heresy for a life coach to say that people don’t change, because the coaching business is based on the premise that people can make changes in their lives.
“Changing oneself” and “making changes” are not the same thing, though. When you ask whether people change in relationships, you will get a different answer depending on which type of change you are talking about. I believe that people don’t change in relationships, but they can make changes.
Let me explain.
I am sure that you’ve heard the following lines during your own break-ups, your friends’ break-ups, or movie break-ups:
“I’m not the same person I used to be.”
“I hardly recognize you anymore.”
“You never really knew me.”
Perhaps, you may have even heard the following lines during marriage proposals, moving-in suggestions, and reconciliations of sorts:
“I am a changed man.”
“I feel like a completely different woman now.”
“I am not the same person I used to bewhen [insert a circumstance when things didn’t work between the two of you in the past]”
When I say that people don’t change in a relationship, I don’t mean that they always make predictable choices.
Here’s what a person can change about himself, with a great deal of work and time:
- Ability to control impulses
- Capacity to forgive
- Preferences for pastimes, foods, clothing, personal styles
- Perception of his/her place in the world
- Ability to act in a way that is expected of him.
What doesn’t change is the person’s core essence, so the nature of whatever the person brings of himself into a relationship doesn’t change. “Core essence” is not easily defined, although I think we all have a sense for what it means. Psychology defines the person’s essence in terms of personality. The Big Five personality traits (extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) are considered to be consistent and stable, especially when tied to a specific social context (for example, an intimate relationship).
So, what does it mean for your relationship that your partner’s (and your own) personality is stable?
1. If your partner is an extrovert, she will consistently draw energy from large, loud gatherings. She may learn to enjoy quiet activities for just the two of you, but she will still need frequent opportunities to be the life of a party in order to feel like herself.
If your partner is an introvert, she will draw energy from quiet, uninterrupted time. She can learn to accompany you at large family gatherings and corporate parties without making faces. You will still see her taking frequent bathroom breaks, smoke breaks or browse on her cell phone – anything to steal a few minutes of solitude during large gatherings.
In both extraversion and introversion cases, you may still sense irritation or frustration from your partner when she is expected to act “outside of her type” for too long. Can you both live with that?
2. A neurotic partner is prone to anxiety, anger, guilt and depression. He would also exaggerate life’s minor stressors and frustrations. That won’t change. What may change is your partner’s coping mechanisms. He can learn stress management techniques, and through cognitive or behavioral therapy learn to not get carried away with guilt or anxiety. If you are hoping that your neurotic partner will turn into a light-hearted “take it easy” character, it is probably not going to happen. Are you ok with that?
3. If your partner scores high on openness to experience, the chances are that he or she is intellectually curious and prefers variety to habit; if your partner has low openness to experience, his or her habits will be difficult to change. If you are the kind of person who prefers taking a vacation in a different location each time, or is open-minded to an idea of open marriage, committing to someone who has to have everything “just so” may make you feel trapped. Maybe, not right away, but in the long run. If your level of openness to experience doesn’t match with your partner’s, it is worth a discussion. See if there are areas of life in which each of you may be willing to give up habit or variety, and this is definitely a two-way street.
4. Agreeableness is a personality trait that determines the extent to which your partner is warm, kind, considerate, and cooperative. If your partner is argumentative, suspicious, and eager to manipulate others in order to win, then he is low on agreeableness. This is not something that is likely to change. So, if you crave warmth and support from your partner, you are probably not going to get much of it if your partner is low on agreeableness. You can condition your partner to call and check how you are doing, but you can’t teach him to be concerned about your well-being.
5. Last, but not least, conscientiousness is defined as desire to do the task well, along with a need for achievement and high self-discipline. Highly conscientious people are generally hard working, may have tendencies toward perfectionism, and in extreme cases turn into workaholics. It is improbable that your highly conscientious goal-oriented partner will change to become a low-key slacker. He might try to curb his blackberry use just to appease you, but the process of taking things easy will irritate him like an itchy skin rash. The opposite is true as well: if your partner is low-key, and you expect him to become an ambitious careerist in the future, you will be disappointed. So, you are either on the same page about ambition, or you are not.
The bottom line is that your partner may change his behaviors in order to try to create the best fit with you, but his “core essence” preferences won’t change. Disparity between forced behaviors and true tendencies will cause your partner to be unhappy in a relationship, no matter how much you love each other.
Personally, when I refer to the person’s core essence, I refer to the way this person feels to you. Just like having a unique physical fingerprint, I’ve come to believe that every person has a unique emotional blueprint. While one’s fingerprint looks the same to anyone who is looking at it, one’s energetic blueprint may present differently to different people due to the “effect of the beholder”.
Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” She’s talking about the person’s energetic blueprint and its effect on you.
If you were to forget all the words that you know, if you were completely unable to form words in your mind, how would you experience your partner?
The wordless way in which you experience your partner is his “emotional blueprint” for you. You may feel generally peaceful and joyful, excited and at ease when you feel your partner. In this case, addressing together any specific behaviors that rub you the wrong way is worth a shot, because the bigger picture feels good. If, however, you feel anxious, off-balance, tense or gutted out when you “feel” your partner’s emotional blueprint, it is unlikely that changing specific behaviors will change your overall feeling of discomfort with this person.
And if you are trying to decide for yourself whether you need a change, independently on whether or not your partner decides to change, here’s a resource for you: “50 Signs You Need a Change”.
May you always feel loved.
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