Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Would You Like Your Partner to Change?

Trying to change your partner can lead to major relationship problems.

As the world isn’t perfect, we rarely find a partner who satisfies all of our criteria. They may have certain idiosyncrasies or habits that we’re less than fond of, and so we might prefer that they make a few changes to the ways they think and act. We might believe that if we can get our partners to behave the way we want them to, our marriage would be so much better. Before we marry, we might think that we’ll live with their weird stuff for now, but things are going to be different after the wedding.

Some of things we’d like our partners to change are rational and reasonable. Don’t smoke in the house, and absolutely don’t smoke in bed, or help out more with the children or household chores. If you’re overloaded, asking your partner to chip in with a little assistance is well within your rights.

But some requests for changes are unreasonable, and possibly irrational. For example, asking your partner to change some aspect of their personality, or how they dress, or how they express themselves. And some requests are simply an attempt to control or manipulate our partner.

The truth is there are just some things that are beyond our control, and one of them is other people. Each of us cherishes our right to make our own choices. No one can force us to change and we have the right, within reasonable bounds, to choose our own paths. But just as we have this right, we must also acknowledge that our partners have the same right. The only things that we can control with any degree of certainty really come down to our own personal thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. These are the things that we personally own, and it is entirely reasonable and rational to believe we can control them.

Nevertheless, that might not stop some people from trying to control their partners. We might believe things would be better for our marriage, and even for our partners if they would just do things the right way, meaning our way. Keep in mind that we’re talking about habits and patterns that are personally owned by our partner, such as how they dress, the type of career path they choose, their hobbies, etc. We’re not talking about things that affect how our own lives, such as not helping around the house or yelling during an argument.

Unfortunately, while we might believe we know what’s best, the truth is we probably don’t, and even if we did, there’s no guarantee our partners will see it that way. Nor should they, because they have their reasons why they think and act as they do. Each of us thinks and acts a certain way because we get benefits and rewards from doing so. When someone requires us to behave differently, they remove the opportunity for us to get those rewards, and that can leave us feeling frustrated and resentful.

This is not to say that we can't influence our partners. However, influence means that we present information so our partners can understand our issues and needs. They can then use that information to make their own decision as to whether or not they want to make any changes so our needs can be fulfilled. Control, on the other hand, means that we tell our partners what to do or say and not give them an opportunity to make the decision on their own.

Trying to change things about our partner that they personally own is not only unreasonable; it can be harmful to the relationship. Typically, the spouse who wants the other to change continues to be disappointed, and that can cause them to stay frustrated and angry. The ones who are pressured to be different will likely regard their marriage as stressful and might resent their partners for making them feel that way. Such problems can’t easily be resolved because partners are really working toward opposite objectives. Without resolution, they’re likely to hold onto their anger and resentment even when they’re not arguing about who should change what.

Besides, even if we could change our partner, it might not be in our best interests to do so. When we try to control another person, we are deciding we know the best way for that person to live. However, our way of thinking or acting might not be the best way for another person. Additionally, while we may believe we have our partner’s interests at heart when we want them to change, we really don’t. We are working from our own interests, and we want them to think and act in a certain way because it fills our own needs, not theirs.

Finally, if you try to get someone to behave according to your needs, you become responsible for the outcomes they experience. That’s a responsibility you should be happy to avoid, because when things don’t go according to plan, you also end up sharing their problems and getting the blame.

In many respects, we don’t have much choice but to accept that what we see in our partners is very often what we have to live with. If they have traits we don’t like, we can suggest changes, but then we must leave it up to them to make their own decision as to whether such changes are in their own interests. If they decide not to, we are left with the choice of either accepting them with their faults and keeping them in our life, or breaking off our relationship. Turning them into something different is not really an option.

Acknowledging this fact is a good thing, since it may help you avoid disappointments and frustrations, and it takes quite a bit of pressure off of you to fix your partner’s life and lets you dedicate more time to fixing your own. After all, if one of our major goals in life is to turn our partner into someone different, it’s possible that we have a few issues of our own to work out.

More from Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today