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Don't Expect to Change Someone

Fantasy is one thing. Change is something else.

Key points

  • Compromise is important in a committed relationship.
  • Change has to come from within a person and cannot be forced.
  • Your fantasies about another person should be grounded in reality.
  • You have to love someone for who they are.
Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

My patient Roger, an English professor, was a die-hard feminist, and the only male member of the All-Campus Women’s Collective. The problem —that is, his reason for seeing me—was that he transfused his politics into his sexuality and dated all the wrong people.

Roger was attracted to feminists who were attracted to women. He’d tried to go out with maybe half the Collective, most of whom were put off or painfully amused. But they tolerated him. He’d read every feminist (and proto-feminist) since Aphra Behn (1640-1689), and brought gravitas to their meetings. But still. Roger knew that they called him a chauvinist invert, i.e., a guy who asserted his maleness by pursuing women not attracted to guys. Did he think he’d convert them with his charm? They thought he was into unconscious sexist power, notwithstanding his commitment to gender equality.

But of course, Roger begged to differ. He found militant lesbians interesting—their views on how the world works, their sensibility, the way they moved. He claimed that his intellectual interest, not to mention his solidarity with their rebellion against established norms, was the basis for his erotic interest. “For me,” he said, “politics is erotic. I go for the politics . . . before I want to go to bed.” He thought it could be reciprocal. That is, he thought it was natural, at least for some people, to fall in love by sharing ideas. Okay, he sounded weird, but he was dead serious.

Roger met Jonquil at a feminist poetry slam. Jonquil had recited a poem, which she wrote, about an affair between two women who’d bonded over a disdain for society and fallen out when one of them returned to “live among men.” It was a sad poem, redolent of disappointment and the futility of trusting other people’s commitments. It spoke of loss and the grim road towards recovery.

One couplet struck Roger, and he repeated it over and over while the other poets read: “I need to connect with someone who believes/Who knows that love is of two true minds.” Yes! Yes! Roger told me that this was exactly what he wanted too. He had thought, when he heard Jonquil, that what mattered to her (as to him) was that people who shared politics could love each other and that their sexual orientation could be adjusted accordingly. He heard “two true minds,” and was hooked. He heard a plea directed at him, although Jonquil didn’t yet know it.

After the slam, he introduced himself to Jonquil and invited her to the Collective’s next meeting. “I thought maybe that was a gamble,” he told me, “since she’d meet all these other women. But I was still a little scared to ask her out.” For all his conviction, Roger had the reticence of any guy pursuing a really attractive woman. He’d decided to go slowly.

When Jonquil showed up at the meeting, Roger tried to impress her with his feminist bona fides, his willingness to push past social norms in the interest of political solidarity.

The strategy kind of worked, since they agreed to have coffee a few days later, where the conversation continued. Jonquil was a committed feminist, had once lived in a feminist commune, but now worked at an alternative press focused on non-binary communities. “I acquire books for them,” she told him. “We think there’s a hunger for uncompromised ideology.” Oh, better and better! Roger was falling in love. But how could he let her know that his interest wasn’t just that of the high-minded fellow traveler? One night, after they’d known each other for about a month, Roger declared himself. He told her that he wanted more than just friendship, and he told her why.

Jonquil was stunned. She’d heard of men like Roger but never imagined she’d meet one. She told him that while she treasured his friendship and thought they could be political soulmates, there was nothing more to be said. Roger told me he was disappointed but undeterred. “I reminded her that her own poem was a declaration of spiritual love in the flesh. I quoted the lines back to her.” Of course, Jonquil replied that the poem was about two women. Roger, still undeterred, was determined to have the last word: “I told her that, whether she knew it or not, her poem revealed what she thought about love as a universal—what draws two people together forever.” I can only say that for some reason, Roger had touched a nerve.

He persuaded Jonquil at least to try going to bed with him. Maybe she’d like it. Maybe he’d change her.

Roger told me that she enjoyed the closeness, but didn’t feel excited. At the time, however, he thought that would develop. “But I also told her that, once she had confidence in me, the sex would improve. I think I used the word accelerate." They moved in together, finally, and so began the epic of Roger and Jonquil.

They lasted about a year. Then, finally, Jonquil met a woman.

She moved out the following day, and that’s when Roger arranged to see me.

The issue, as I told him, was whether anyone should enter into a relationship in the hope of changing someone—even someone who loves them, as Jonquil may have loved Roger at some level. We all have fantasies of the perfect lover and may try to recreate some “imperfect” person to be what we want.

But the project is unfair to everyone. It imposes strains where the relationship should feel natural, and it elevates one person’s ego over another’s—eventually exacerbating the strains. The object of such a project can feel manipulated and, for that reason, may deliberately resist. Even if the person wants to change (and perhaps Jonquil tried), they may chafe at the difficulty. They may end up resenting us. They may rebel.

When Roger came to see me, he wanted help with managing his near-obsession with women who loved women. I observed that there were plenty of heterosexual feminists whom he could date, though he said it wasn’t as exciting. But my point, of course, was that while love may be aspirational, it must also be based in reality.

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