I like to think that I’m a product of nothing. My being purely made up of well-crafted thoughts and wholly independent learnings in a subliminal yet relentless pursuit of individualism. You can imagine, then, the creep of discomfort that occurred when a friend recently recalled a philosophy she’d heard: “We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.”
The words were first said by a motivational speaker named Jim Rohn, and they felt like an abrupt blow to the ego I insist I don’t have. Could my entire identity be a messy amalgamation of influence rather than one I’d developed through my own means? It was an idea that made me uncomfortable, and one that called certain tenets I’ve long lived by into question. Specifically, my belief that to change as a result of a romantic relationship would be to suppress my authenticity — to deny parts of myself. According to Rohn, however, such a shift would be inevitable.
The subject of changing for a partner is divisive. On the one side you have cliches like, “Don’t change for anyone,” “Don’t ask me to change!” or “Don’t marry someone hoping they’ll change.” And on the other side you have, “True love changes you,” “He makes me a better version of myself,” or “She showed me parts of myself I didn’t know existed.” Many of us have experienced a lovesick friend changing to the point of unrecognizable, or, upon a breakup, searched for parts of ourselves we hadn’t realized we lost along the way.
So where is the line? Should we be holding our guards up against the notion of change or welcoming the moulding process? Should we be open to changing for someone? Or does that in turn negate a deeper, truer part of ourselves, like my ego has lead me to believe?
When I reached out to women in pursuit of answers, just as many challenged change as praised it. “I minimized parts of myself,” Florence, 27, tells me of a previous relationship. “He was completely unsupportive of my activism and his refusal to accept that part of me stopped me growing in an area that I was passionate about. When I realized what I wanted to do with my life, he didn’t like it.”
On the ups and downs of embracing compromise, newlywed Loren, 20, says, “We are constantly changing to adapt to each other. I’ve had to learn how to process in a way that wouldn’t bombard him and he has had to learn how to include me in his decisions… we try to build one another up for the better.”
Alice, 26, had a different experience: “I didn’t feel at all appreciated or like he was interested in me,” she tells me. “I remember being drunk for so much of the time we were together and partying a lot more than I used to. As soon as I broke up with him, I completely calmed down.”
It would be easy to follow the rationale that only thriving relationships produce good change and vice versa, but Maybelle, 27, found herself transform despite her relationship ending: “My ex was obsessed with film, and our Sunday ritual involved us working our way through his DVD collection,” she tells me. “He often told me how he loved nothing more than hearing what I thought after the credits rolled, and even encouraged me to start my own film blog.” Those initial encouragements then ignited something more: “I’m now a writer with an insatiable adoration for all things screen-related, and even though it’s been years since we saw each other last, I will always be forever grateful to him for starting up my love affair with movies.”
My most predominant experience with relationship change — and likely what informed my apprehension around it — came in the form of subtle compromises that were completely out of my character. With friends, I’ve historically been the first to call out poorly behaved partners, but when it came to this particular relationship, I become so focused on trying to make it work that I stopped challenging damaging behavior, even if, in hindsight, it was diluting who I was. My initial mantra to not change was lost in the hands of an unhealthy relationship.
But if Rohn is right, and I am indeed the average of my five closest people, it means that I’m not as fiercely individual as I had hoped. It also means that I’m as vulnerable to positive change as negative. And if I remain fixated on my own independence, I could miss out on the evolution that occurs when vulnerability meets another person’s respect — the kind of change that feels like a discovery rather than a sacrifice.
Perhaps the question, then, isn’t whether change in love is good or bad, but how to tell the difference between identity loss and identity gains. Self-sacrifice and healthy compromise. Maintaining personal integrity versus closing yourself off.
What do you think? Have you changed for a partner? Asked a partner to change? Resisted either?
Gif by Emily Zirimis.