My mom has given me one piece of relationship advice over and over: “A leopard doesn’t lose its spots—they may fade, but they’re always there.” It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that when you’re with someone, you need to accept them for who they are. It’s too easy to trick yourself into thinking that they’ll change and things will magically get better. And on the one hand, I totally agree. But on the other hand, I’m pretty sure I’ve changed. A lot. The person I was at 20 isn’t the person I am at 30. Most of my friends have evolved through a whole lot of different variations of themselves. So it's hard to wrap my mind around the idea that people don't have the capacity to change.
But when we talk about change in relationships—or changing our partners—things are even more complex. At the early stages of the relationship, you are often the best version of yourself, only wanting the potential partner to see you in the most flattering light. But as you get to know each other, the walls come down and each becomes more authentically who they are. And sometimes, you might not like everything you find. So when it comes to change in relationships, it really boils down to two questions: Can people change? And, in a relationship, should you want to change your partner?
Change Is Complicated
While the more rash, absolutist part of me tends to agree with my mom and think that people don’t change at all, ever—it’s clearly more complicated than that. Parts of us can change. Our style, our hair, our hobbies, and jobs are all easily changeable. Even some more fundamental parts of us can shift. I know some people whose outlooks have softened as they’ve gotten older, but I also know some who have gotten even more staunch in their beliefs. Yet the core of who you are probably isn’t going to change very much. My selfish friends are still pretty selfish, my driven friends are still pretty driven—it may take different forms, but the core of them is there. Those basic building blocks of someone’s personality—those are the spots that don’t change.
Playing With Fire
But with our friends, we tend to be more accepting of who they are—even if we’re sometimes frustrated by it. With our partners, however, the intimacy that grows between us can make us feel like we’re entitled to try and make a change. But that’s a dangerous game. Now, there are some changes that are more understandable than others. If you want your partner to quit smoking because you worry about their health, or if you want them to do more of what makes them happy—those are instincts that many people will relate to. But wanting to change the way they dress or what movies they like or parts of their personality just to make them fit into a mold you prefer—that’s tricky territory. No matter how superficial the changes seem, they can represent something much larger.
Why Do You Want To Change Them?
If you feel the urge to change your partner, whether it’s a fundamental or a smaller change, you need to ask yourself one question: Why? Is it coming out of genuine concern for your partner—like wanting them to quit smoking—or is it something more? Unless there’s an objective health risk, whether it’s mental or physical health, often there will be something else at play. Maybe you’re trying to turn them into someone your parents will approve of or someone more like your ex or someone who you think your friends will be more impressed by. But that’s on you—not them. If you just want a cooler, more attractive, funnier, or richer version of them, that’s your own baggage that you’re projecting onto your partner and, to put it simply, it’s not fair.
Is The Relationship Working?
If you realize that your urge to change your partner comes from an ulterior motive, you need to look at the relationship as a whole. What is the change you want them to make? If it’s a little one, like changing the way they dress, but you love everything else about them, then it’s probably time to just take a breath and get over yourself. There are worse things in life than Bermuda shorts. But if the changes you want them to make are bigger—a different career, a different sense of humor, a different outlook on life—then there’s a good chance those spots won’t change. You need to think about whether this relationship is really working—or whether you’ve just been trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
Wanting your partner to change is a tricky situation. It’s too simplistic to say, “You should never want them to change and only love them for who they are.” Because people are sometimes self-destructive or don't act in their own best interest—and it’s completely normal to want your partner to be the healthiest, happiest version of themselves. But sometimes, our motives are a bit less altruistic. If you're trying to shape your partner to meet a standard that exists only in your head, it’s time to look at the bigger picture. Sometimes we want our partner to shift a little because we want the best for them. But sometimes we want our partners to change into someone they're not. So be honest with yourself—because it’s not your partner’s job to fit into your agenda.