Can Your Partner Change? Psychologists Weigh In
When you first started dating, you were obviously drawn to your partner's best qualities, like the fact they're a giving person, always text back, and have a great sense of humor. But let's say you're a few months into the relationship, and notice they have an unsavory habit or two. If it's annoying enough, you might even find yourself wondering if your partner can change.
This is something pretty much everyone's done, to one degree or another. "We want to live that fairytale and believe that love can conquer all," psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go?, told Women's Health. When it comes down to actually seeing improvement in bad habits, though, it isn't always guaranteed to happen.
Small daily frustrations, like the fact your partner leaves dirty laundry lying around, is something that can be easily improved, Durvasula said. But major personality flaws? Not so much. "If [your partner is] irritable, impatient, not open to new ideas, or doesn’t like to socialize," she said, "those things are going to be much tougher to move the dial on."
That's because, unlike remembering to put old socks in the hamper, overcoming a lifelong habit of being grouchy, or impatient, or close-minded will obviously take way more time. Not to mention it'll be entirely up to your partner to make that effort.
That's why the real question shouldn't necessarily be whether someone can change, "but whether they want to," Dr. Margaret Paul, PhD, a relationship expert and author, tells Bustle. "People change when they are not happy with themselves, not because someone else is unhappy with them. And it’s unlikely they will change unless they are deeply motivated to get the help they need to change."
That said, making a partner happy can certainly be motivation enough for some, as can improving a relationship. "Of course, we each have personality traits that are relatively stable, but learning and understanding more about ourselves, especially in the context of a relationship, can make it easier to shift some behaviors or habits that we once thought were ingrained," Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, a licensed clinical psychologist at Therapy Group of NYC, tells Bustle.
It's best to go into a relationship accepting your partner, flaws and all. That's why, should a problem arise, you and your partner may want to focus more on compromise and acceptance, more than sculpting each other into an ideal vision.
It is OK, however, to talk about things that are bothering you, habits that are impacting you as a couple, and ways you can slowly start improving them. "It’s fair to ask a partner to change, but not to expect it," Lily Ewing, MA, LMHCA, a therapist who specializes in relationships, tells Bustle. "They’re an adult, so they ultimately get to decide." And if that becomes a problem, you two may even decide to go your separate ways. While you may not be able to change someone, that doesn't mean you have to live with their problems, or ongoing relationship issues.
Assuming it's worth the effort, start by finding time to chat with your partner about how you've been feeling, and discuss possible solutions that you can both agree to. "Consider your motives and be realistic about change," Lopez Witmer says. "It’s best discussed with your partner in an open, nonjudgmental, and loving way."
When change isn't possible, compromise and openness may be enough. "People can always work on behavior, which can also mean modifying personality traits," Lesli Doares, a couples consultant and coach, tells Bustle. "Introverts can go to more parties and extroverts can stay in more if they see the value to the relationship."
Therapy can also be a big help, especially for so-called personality traits that are becoming toxic. For example, "a lot of people think they can’t work on anger — it’s just who they are — but that is not true," Doares says. "Anger is an emotion, not a personality trait. Screaming and yelling are behaviors that can be modified or eliminated."
If your partner wants to change these things, they can. It's unfair to go into a relationship hoping they'll magically morph into a brand new person. But as their significant other, it is OK to point out habits or quirks that aren't working for you, and discuss ways you can both improve. From there, your partner may be able to make a few adjustments, so you can move forward as couple.
Dr. Margaret Paul, PhD, relationship expert and author
Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, licensed clinical psychologist at Therapy Group of NYC
Lily Ewing, MA, LMHCA, therapist who specializes in relationships
Lesli Doares, couples consultant and coach