Years ago, I got into a debate with a friend about whether my desire to change my boyfriend made me a shitty person. I argued that it didn’t. She implied, in so many words, that it did. I clarified: I didn’t want to change a lot, only some things. A couple! I knew my admission was uncouth, but I believed I was speaking to a truth many felt. She stood her ground: “You’re not supposed to want to change the people you love. If you want to change them, you don’t love them.”
Her words cut surprisingly deep. I was dating someone at the time who I loved a lot but was having trouble committing to, emotionally. I accused her of thinking like an idealist to a fault. A chilly air passed between us. Confrontation makes me jittery; I remember the exchange vividly. When I think back, I can’t help but wonder if we pushed with such conviction not because we believed we were right, but because we wanted to be. I, the perennial changer; her, the perennial changee. Or maybe it was the wine.
Either way, it’s easy to see now why it escalated. The topic sits at the intersection of two controversial questions: “Can people change?” and “Who are we supposed to be with?” Through that lens, my heel-digging makes sense. I’d been mired in the exhaustive song and dance of trying to want to be with someone for a while (oof), and her assertion that I didn’t love him felt like an attack on my decision to be with him. In the end, we were both a little wrong: I loved him a lot, but my desire to change him ended up being the canary in the coal mine.
I wanted him to be a curious star-gazer; he was more of a head-down hard worker. I wanted him to be the center of attention; he was more of an observer. I wanted sage advice and wisdom; he was a little younger than me (and young in general, no fault of his). The question of what I wanted to change about him — some of which was pretty fundamental — ended up being far more important than how much of him I wanted to change. But it’s never that simple when you’re in love, is it? Even if I wished our relationship were shaped a little differently, I still loved and appreciated who he was and what we had. The question I couldn’t answer was: How much wishing is too much wishing? Aren’t loving relationships about helping each other grow?
Those questions seem a little delusional with some distance. If I’d wanted him to be more respectful of me, or open to my ideas for what to do on a Saturday, sure — but wanting him to change fundamentally? Pack a decades worth of self-improvement into a conversation? It was totally unfair. I do believe people can change, but I was mistaken to assume I could or should play such a big role in that process. Maybe my ex does have some curious star-gazer in him; one day he probably will be a wise old gentleman who likes to hold the attention of everyone at a dinner table, but none of those things were mine to mold, push or change. He needed someone to hold his hand in that journey, no matter how it turned out, not wait for it to hurry up and happen.
Maybe full, unbridled acceptance — flaws and all — is ideal to a fault. But I think it’s possible to accept someone while also supporting their betterment, and the betterment of the relationship. There’s a difference between supportive encouragement and critical pushing, it’s just not always easy to parse from close range. My feelings on this are continually evolving though, so I want to ask: What do you think? Is it okay or unfair to want your partner to change?
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