“You know I'll love you, till the moon is upside down. Don't you remember, I was always your clown, Why try to change me now?” — Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Fiona Apple, and many others.
“Why does a woman work 10 years to change a man's habits and then complain that he's not the man she married?” — Barbra Streisand
It is commonly assumed that we love someone even though we know his or her flaws—as love is essentially not about our partner’s (objective) characteristics, but about our (subjective) attitude. Accordingly, the argument typically goes, it is not fruitful to try to change your partner’s characteristics; it is your attitude that needs to change. While there is a grain of truth in this view, the story is more complex...
The Subjective Story of Love
“We come to love not by finding a perfect person but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.” — Sam Keen
The subjective story of romantic love involves two major assumptions:
Combining the two assumptions together gives us a good reason why changing ourselves, rather than our beloved, is the central task of love. However, the two assumptions are still problematic because:
These two issues challenge the assumption that love should never be concerned with changing one's partner.
I Want to Know What Love Is
“You don't love someone because they're perfect, you love them in spite of the fact that they're not.” — Jodi Picoult, My Sister's Keeper
A common-sense view assumes that the first claim above regarding the subjective story of love suggests that love, like other emotions, is first and foremost a psychological attitude of the agent. Another view, which has recently gained popularity, argues that love is the connection between the lovers (Krebs, 2015).
Both views seem to be correct when referring to a major feature of love, and incorrect if they claim to be the exclusive characterization of romantic love. Romantic love has features relating to both the agent’s (subjective) attitude and the (more objective) connection between the two lovers. A plausible combination of the two views would argue that love is an attitude of the lover, which is mainly focused on the connection between the two lovers.
The essential role of connection in romantic love suggests that not just anyone can be someone’s romantic partner—developing a romantic connection depends upon compatibility and resonance. Romantic love is not about a universal connection between all people, but about a unique connection between two individuals (Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008). This is nicely expressed in Javan’s saying: “I don't wish to be everything to everyone, but I would like to be something to someone.” If this is the case, then seeking to make some changes in one's beloved (and oneself) in order to enhance that unique romantic connection is commendable.
The other problematic assumption of the subjective story is that a lover can change his or her own attitude at will. It is true that we have a certain degrees of freedom in shaping our loving attitude, but there are also limitations to our doing so. Since romantic love is based on evaluating various characteristics of a partner, giving greater weight to the one in which he or she excels may enhance the partner’s love. Thus, if a partner is kind but not that handsome, considering kindness as more important in love will increase your love toward that partner.
Although such regulative strategies are possible, they operate within certain limits and cannot enable a lover to completely overlook actual flaws in the partner. I now turn to these limitations.
External Change and Intrinsic Development
“Love me when I least deserve it, because that's when I really need it.” — Swedish Proverb
It is obvious that we cannot and should not change everything in a partner or in ourselves. To clarify the nature of making an appropriate change in your partner, I introduce the distinction between external change and intrinsic development:
Change is “to become different, typically without permanently losing one's characteristics or essence”; development, a unique type of change, is “the process of improving by extending, enlarging, or refining” (Oxford Dictionaries). External change in romantic love underlies, for instance, the enhancement of sexual desire upon meeting a new partner. The change underlying meaningful development takes place when deeper understanding of each other leads to greater romantic profundity. Cultivating depth by effecting some (typically small) changes in each other strengthens your desire to be with the other.
Profound love has the potential to nurture growth and improvement and bring out the best in both partners. Research has demonstrated that when a close romantic partner views you and behaves toward you in a manner congruent with your "ideal" self, you move nearer toward that ideal self. This has been called the "Michelangelo phenomenon," because just as Michelangelo said that he released the ideal form hidden in the marble, our romantic partners serve to "sculpt" us in light of our own ideal self. Close partners sculpt one another in a manner that brings each individual closer to his or her ideal self, bringing out the best in each partner (Drigotas, 2002).
What Is an Appropriate Change in a Partner?
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” — Serenity Prayer
We can conclude that the type of change we should seek in our romantic partner and in ourselves is that which develops the romantic connection by bringing out the best in each of us. In such relationships, personal growth and flourishing is evident: “I'm a better person when I am with her.” This claim is different than “I’m a different person when I am with her.” Retaining one’s identity and autonomy is important in love, as in other circumstances.
The process of development is a joint task of the two partners; hence the changes will typically be reciprocal. Take, for example, the case of an absent-minded woman and her very sensitive partner. The partner may wish to effect a change in this woman that would lead her to being more mindful of the partner’s needs and more attentive to the circumstances of their relationship. The woman may want to effect a change in her partner that would lead him to take things more easily and not attach too much importance to every detail of her behavior, thus becoming more tolerant of her “mistakes.” Similarly, it is valuable to try to change your partner (and yourself) in the sense of getting greater interest in each other's fields of interest. If classical music is of great interest to you, trying to change your partner to begin appreciating such music will, no doubt, enhance the quality of your togetherness.
Your wish to change your partner should focus on improving the connection between you—not on creating a new partner. This may be a life-long process, though much of the work will be done at the beginning.
“If we don't change, we don't grow. If we don't grow, we aren't really living.” — Gail Sheehy
You should strive to change your partner and yourself in the direction of further developing your relationship’s meaningful togetherness. You should not try to change the character of your partner or yourself in a way that either or both of you lose your identity. The wish to change your partner should not be taken to indicate that there is something wrong with your partner, but rather that growing together requires greater compatibility between you. The likelihood of a successful process of development is greater when you both realize that such a process requires ongoing adaptation to each other, rather than actually changing each other.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford University Press.
Drigotas, S. M. (2002). The Michelangelo phenomenon and personal well-being. Journal of Personality, 70, 59–77.
Krebs, A. (2015). Zwischen Ich und Du. Eine dialogische Philosophie der Liebe. Suhrkamp.