Why it’s OK to want a partner to change
We live in a culture that firmly suggests that the essence of true love is for one person fully to accept the other, as we like to put it, just as they are. In moments of quiet intimacy, the most romantic thing one could ever hear from a partner is, apparently, ‘I wouldn’t want to change a thing about you’ just as the most bitter and disappointed enquiry one could ever have cause to throw at a lover in a declining relationship would be: ‘Why can’t you accept me as I am?’ If things do end, we can be guaranteed to garner a substantial degree of outraged sympathy from friends and onlookers by explaining bluntly that we left: because they wanted us to change.
It sounds almost plausible – until we pause and modestly remember what the human animal is: a demented, broken, agitated, blind, deluded, barely evolved primate. We are, each one of us, and with nothing derogatory being meant by the term whatsoever, simply quite mad. Outside a carefully crafted facade, we are evidently only just holding it together. We are the inheritors of deeply peculiar childhoods, we over and under react in a shifting set of areas, we fail to understand key aspects of reality, we get other people wildly wrong, we are unsure of our path, are entirely questionable in many of our judgements and a lot of the time, plainly have no idea what’s going on.
Against such a background, to insist that there would be nothing about us that we should change, that to be asked to change would be an offence, that we should be loved just as we are, such a position isn’t merely a pleasant romantic trope, it is the height of arrogance and wilful delusion. Given the facts of human nature, our own and that of everyone else’s on this wretched planet, how could we be anything other than profoundly, tirelessly committed to change? How could we not be thoroughly embarrassed of who we were last year, let alone yesterday or right now? How could we not heartily embrace the idea of anyone with a modicum of curiosity and patience proffering certain suggestions about how we might evolve? By what species of manic defensiveness have we built a culture where it might be thought Romantic to deny oneself the chance of psychological growth?
It’s time to redefine a functioning adult. This isn’t someone who bristles at the idea of change, gently suggested; it’s someone who immediately and instinctively welcomes it as a path to redemption. The true adult knows they need to grow up. The truly healthy person knows they are ill (we all are). And conversely, the people who really need to change are precisely those who think they don’t need to change at all (and say it’s your problem when you float the idea), those who get furious with you for even vaguely suggesting the concept and storm off into the other room calling you weird or over-intense.
Of course, change has to be asked for in kindly and mature ways. We’re not talking here of a bullying demand for evolution. We’re talking about how much we are right to love our partners and still, nevertheless, want them to grow up in particular ways: learn to listen more, learn to be more present, learn to be more affectionate or at least explain why they can’t be, learn to get better at fathoming their sexuality, learn to understand their past and how it affects their present, learn to defuse what makes them irrationally angry, learn to admit to their addictive behaviours and seek the help that would be on offer, learn not to humiliate us in company or betray us with friends or our children, learn how to be loyal and kind and relaxed and present and good…
Of course we want them to change and of course they should want to change us. This isn’t incompatible with love, it’s the work of love. Love should be a classroom in which we mutually undertake to educate one another, in a spirit of support and compassion, to grow into the best version of ourselves. Love shouldn’t be a casern in which we endorse each other’s worst sides and suffer in silence around the difficulties the other is causing us. ‘What would you like to change about me?’ should emerge as the kindest and most mature of enquiries between partners. Rather than giving each other presents, couples should merely hand over the greatest gift of all, the sincerely-meant question: How can I change to make it easier for you to endure me? That would be properly Romantic.
Love is not a place to seek support for one’s most compulsive and immature sides; to be backed up in defenses and seek confirmation that one is ok with every last subterfuge and prevarication. Love should give us the bravery to confront our flaws. ‘I want you to change’ is not a sign of cruelty: it’s proof that someone cares. Let’s go even further: the natural response to being with someone who keeps not wanting to change and who sees our attempts to change them as an insult, should be brutally realistic: we should leave.