In couple relationships, it often happens that we fall in love with our partner as they are (or as we imagine them to be) but, in the course of a relationship, we want them to change. Often our attitude is something akin to “What the devil is this? Why won’t you change?” The desire that our partner change and their resistance to change are often a source of frustration in relationships.
In couples therapy, in particular, this often takes the form of: “I’m okay, my partner’s a mess. Fix my partner and we’ll be alright.” This is a form of what psychologist Fritz Heider called “the Fundamental Attribution Error,” which basically says, “I’m okay, you’re defective.” Heider says that we tend to overlook or rationalize away our own shortcomings and to be more critical and judgmental of the shortcomings of others.
The paradox is that none of us can change unless we first feel accepted. The two Rogers, Mr. Rogers and Carl Rogers, taught us that lesson. Mr. Rogers, the American public television personality and the host of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” taught us by word and example about unconditional acceptance and genuine positive regard. Carl Rogers, the great 20th Century American psychologist and one of the founders of the humanistic or “client-centered” approach to psychology, wrote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Applying this to relationships, this means that my partner can only change if and when he or she feels accepted just as they are, without conditions.
Therefore, we want the attitude toward change in couple relationships to be something more akin to: “I love you. I accept you as you are. I don’t want you to change. But, for God’s sake, will you change?”
Having said this, however, there are limits to acceptance. No one should have to tolerate abuse in any form (physical, emotional, psychological, verbal, etc.). No one should have to tolerate a betrayal or infidelity, though some may choose to stay together and to rebuild their relationship. No one should have to simply accept their partner’s substance abuse or addiction.
These caveats aside, if we want our partner to change, we have to begin accepting our partner as he or she is. Only then can they and our relationship change.