I recently heard the British writer and philosopher Alain de Botton discuss his novel The Course of Love in which one of characters takes on the project of improving his wife’s personality. She learns of this when he begins to act in the most ham-fisted way imaginable, calling her materialistic, shouting at her, and slamming doors.
Such scenes wouldn’t resonate if many of us haven’t attempted to change our lover or been on the receiving end of someone on a mission to change us. Or, perhaps, we’ve been on both sides – instigator and recipient.
Such projects usually don’t end well. So, the question is do we accept our significant other ‘as is’ and give up on the idea of their ‘fantasy’ version? Or do we embark on a fraught project of changing them?
I’m of two minds on this question because I have both resisted my wife’s attempts to improve me, often reacting with irritation when I’m pushed to do things I’d rather not do and to be ways I’d rather not be, and at the same time benefiting from her efforts. On balance, what’s the right approach? Or, perhaps, the better way to ask this is, is there a hybrid approach?
Today I share three ideas with you on what to consider when embarking on the project of ‘improving your significant other.’
Since most individuals do not take kindly to trying to be changed by another person, approach your project from a very particular vantage point, one that can be stated as “acceptance before change.” You may recognize this as the main clinical dialectic in DBT. By dialectic is meant that the two opposing needs most people have – of feeling accepted by another just as one is AND of desiring change for the better – need to be reconciled. In DBT, the therapist remains sensitive to the reality that many of her clients will interpret a push for change as implicit criticism, rejection, and confirmation of their pre-existing defectiveness self-schema. Thus, the therapist takes pains to begin with radical acceptance of the client as she already is. And only once that foundation is in place, will the client be open to the work of change.
What I just described is the antithesis of how Alain de Botton’s character acted toward his wife. So, if you wish to gain any traction in improving your significant other, you must do so from a stance of love, acceptance, and tenderness. And how is this attitude conveyed to another person? Through cherishing them. Recall I wrote not long ago that cherishing means to show “care, solicitude, concern, worry, preoccupation, and attention; it’s the keeping of someone dear to you in your thoughts. It connotes that you always take them into account when considering doing something by considering first how it will affect them.”
Improvement for Whom?
When you set out to improve someone, a life partner or child, what improvement are you seeking? Is it so that this person can better meet your needs? If so, the recipient of your attentions is likely to see the true intention behind your endeavors. And they may react in one of three ways: they may choose to reject your desired changes, finding them manipulative and self-serving. They may comply with them under duress. Or they may accept them because they love you and want you to be happy.
But even if their reaction approximates the latter, is that enough? Is that your entire objective? There is an additional or alternative objective:
Your project of improvement can be intended to make your significant other more successful being who they are and to become closer to the man or woman they are meant to be. Will your improvement project make them more able to embody and live their values, reach their goals, and move forward on the path of achieving their particular destiny?
Your Growth Mindset
If you are starting a relationship that has the potential to become intimate and long-term, you have the option of discussing matters related to change and influence before the relationship settles into fixed expectations. At the beginning it can be easier to discuss each other’s sensitivities, proclivities, desires, fears, and openness to change and growth, as well as to set – with intent – the terms of your mutual interactions.
If you’re already in a long-term relationship, raising such topics and making such changes is possible but harder. There is a way to ease into this project of improving your significant other and that is to be accepting of your own (need for) improvement, and of your significant other’s implicit and explicit communications for change in YOU. If you are bold enough to try to improve another, be bold enough to be the recipient of another’s project of trying to change you. You can, if you choose, lead by example.
Until next time,
“What is so frightening is the extent to which we may idealize others when we have such trouble tolerating ourselves.”
– Alain de Botton, Essays In Love
“Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part.”
– Louis de Bernieres, Captain Corelli’s Violin
“Some people don’t understand the promises they’re making when they make them,” I said. “Right, of course. But you keep the promise anyway. That’s what love is. Love is keeping the promise anyway.”
– John Green, The Fault in Our Stars