“I love you with lemon and salt, I love you exactly as you are, No need to change you at all.” —Julieta Venegas
“To win you must fight, or so they say, but with love things never seem to work that way…To win in love you must surrender.” —Jonathan Richman
Attempting to change one's beloved and surrendering to him or her are common practices. Although each has some value, neither is effective in guiding our romantic path. In order to evaluate their effects, we need to consider the nature of love and the nature of change.
Caring and sharing
“We are not the same person this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.” —W. Somerset Maugham
Determining whether we should change our beloved’s characteristics or surrender to their demands depends on our concept of what love is.
The care model, which focuses on your lover’s needs, often does so at the expense of your own needs. This model is most relevant in loving relationships that involve significant inequality, such as parental love, love of God, and love for someone who is infirm. In some extreme versions of this model, there is little or no point in attempting to change the loved one, and we are most likely to surrender to them. Emmanuel Levinas denies the value of reciprocity in love, arguing that we should be prepared to sacrifice our life for the beloved (Levinas, 1998).
The dialogue model, which stresses the significance of sharing experiences and activities, considers reciprocity and the connection between the two lovers to be central in romantic love (Krebs, 2015). In this view, improving the unique romantic connection requires reciprocity and change from each lover. Certainly, both partners should care about the other's needs, as love includes not merely enabling the connection to flourish, but also ensuring that each lover flourishes.
Unlike the caring model, the dialogue model emphasizes the lovers' autonomy and essential equality. Sharing is possible when one lover is not autonomous and the relationship is not one of equality; however, such sharing would typically not be deep enough to sustain the development of long-term profound love. Joint activities, which are at the heart of romantic sharing, require a kind of resonance, or at least compatibility between the partners. Hence, in certain circumstances, changing or even replacing one's beloved is unavoidable.
The nature of change: Intrinsic development
“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 obvious that we cannot and should not try to change too many aspects of our partner or ourselves. Extensive change can harm both the partners and the relationship. The type of change that is most beneficial is an intrinsic development that retains the identity of each lover.
A common characterization of change is to become different, typically without permanently losing one's characteristics or essence. Development is a unique type of change, a process of improving by expanding, enlarging, or refining. In this sense, development involves both becoming deeper and improving. The process of development is typically “objective,” in the sense of taking into account the agent’s unique personality and circumstances. As the process has a meaningful direction, its existence expresses a kind of normative achievement (Ben-Ze'ev, 2017).
External changes and intrinsic development operate on different time scales — the scale of the first is typically very brief, while the second can take years. A lack of change in both scales indicates that the agent is stuck or simply drifting through life. However, the presence of change on one scale (e.g., a significant development on the lengthier scale) could reduce the need for external changes on the briefer scale. The lengthier scale usually occurs with moderate intensity, preventing the system from collapsing due to overloading.
Whereas the impact of external change depends largely on good timing, intrinsic development is constituted by time. In the case of external change, the agent remains more or less the same over time and needs changes to alleviate boredom and to regain a sense of purpose, excitement, or self-worth; in intrinsic meaningful development, the agent is continually developing. Accordingly, if we rely too much on external causes to provide satisfaction in our relationship, it can distort the balance between our profound and superficial values in a way that we really do not want.
In our accelerated cybersociety, we are addicted to external changes and accordingly tend to be averse to investing our time in profound endeavors, including in romantic relations. Romantic depth requires a great investment of time, yet the current social ethos runs counter to this. The time that American spouses spend alone with their partners has decreased over the past few decades, mainly due to greater investment in work and children. This reduction is also qualitative, due to more stress, information overload, and multitasking associated with interruptions (Finkel, et al., 2014).
Does profound change mean surrender?
“People say 'when you have children, everything changes.' But maybe things are awakened that were already there.” —Meryl Streep
As each person has a complex variety of characteristics, the value of changing the beloved is determined by the characteristics we would like to change or to enhance, while not altering those we cherish or effacing the partner’s own identity. This is by no means an easy task, and we risk meddling with our partner's sense of self in the process.
The most valuable change in this regard is the process of intrinsic development that brings 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 saw his process of sculpting as releasing the ideal form hidden in the marble, we can serve to "sculpt" our romantic partners in light of their own ideal self. Profound lovers 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). In these circumstances, in order to win love, no one should surrender, as both lovers can develop in ways that facilitate their personal and their joint flourishing.
“There is nothing permanent except change.” —Heraclitus
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 are evident in the saying: “I'm a better person when I am with her.” This claim is not the same as “I’m a different person when I am with her.” Retaining one’s identity and autonomy is important in love, as in other circumstances.
Your wish to change your partner should focus on improving the connection between you, not on changing him or her to better suit your version of the ideal, nor on finding a new partner. The aspects of your partner that you find problematic might change as part of this improvement, but such a change should occur organically and as a result of your partner's flourishing, not of your meddling. We are not God, and we cannot recreate our partners in the way we want. Our ability to change and be changed resides more in fostering our romantic connection.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2017). Does Loving Longer Mean Loving More? On the Nature of Enduring Affective Attitudes, Philosophia, 45, 2017.
Drigotas, S. M. (2002). The Michelangelo phenomenon and personal well-being. Journal of Personality, 70, 59–77.
Finkel, E. J., Hui, C. M., Carswell, K. L., & Larson, G. M. (2014). The suffocation of marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow without enough oxygen. Psychological Inquiry, 25, 1-41.
Krebs, A. (2015). Zwischen Ich und Du. Eine dialogische Philosophie der Liebe. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Levinas, E. (1998). On thinking-of-the-other: Entre nous. New York: Columbia University Press.