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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Relationships: The Problem With Trying to Change and "Improve" Your Partner

Are you someone who has the tendency to choose romantic partners that you try to change and "improve"to try to mold them into who you want them to be (see my article: I'll Change Him/Her After We Get Married) ?

Relationships: The Problem With Trying to Change and "Improve" Your Partner?

This is usually more of an unconscious process than a conscious one which often leads to disappointment and frustration for both people involved.

In healthy relationships people develop and grow together.  There is a mutuality.  There is reciprocity.  Each person contributes to the growth and development of the other in different ways.

The dynamic that I'm referring to in this article is where there's a pattern of choosing one romantic partner after the next as a "project" to be worked on, changed and "improved."

Often people who tend to engage in this dynamic focus on their fantasy of what they want their partner to be rather than who he or she is at the moment.  It's as if they get caught up in the fantasy and lose sight of the actual person in front of them (see my article:  Relationships: Are You In Love With Him or Your Fantasy of Him?)

Assuming that their partner goes along with this dynamic (for his or her own unconscious reasons), this becomes a codependent relationship where each person in this relationship usually ends up being frustrated, disappointed and resentful.

To explore this dynamic further, let's take a look at a fictionalized vignette:

Jane and Ed
When Jane met Ed, she was attracted to his gregariousness and easygoing nature.  Unlike the men that she usually met, he was kind and unpretentious.

Although she liked him and she was attracted to him, she felt that he needed to lose weight and, since she was so health conscious and physically fit, she knew that, with her help, he could lose the weight.

Relationships: The Problem With Trying to Change and "Improve" Your Partner

As they began to date, she wanted to be tactful about how she broached the topic of his weight.  So when he mentioned that he admired her for being so health conscious and fit, she saw an opening to talk to him about changes that he could make to be healthier.

Ed was open to hearing her suggestions and expressed a desire to lose weight and get fit, which thrilled Jane.  By the following week, he accompanied her to the gym and she invited him to her aerobic classes.

Within a few weeks, Ed was starting to lose weight and feel healthier.  He was grateful to Jane for her help, and Jane felt a great deal of satisfaction in helping Ed to make these changes.

A few weeks later, while she and Ed were at a party where her friends were talking about a book on the best seller list that , Jane realized that, compared to her, Ed wasn't as well read.  She felt embarrassed that Ed had nothing to contribute to the conversation about that book or any other books.

Not wanting to offend him, Jane talked to a close friend about this and asked her if she thought it would be offensive for her to give Ed a list of recommended books to read.

Her friend warned Jane against doing what Jane had done so many times before--working so hard to change the man that she was seeing and feeling frustrated and angry when it ended badly.

Jane understood what her friend was telling her, but she felt that this time it would be different.  She really cared for Ed and she felt that he could benefit from her guidance.  She didn't detect any of the resentment that she experienced from prior boyfriends.

Relationships: The Problem With Trying to Change and "Improve" Your Partner

But when she gave Ed a reading list, she was surprised at his reaction.  He took the list and looked at it with an absent stare.  Then, he handed it back to Jane and told her that he appreciated her intention, but he felt that she was saying he wasn't smart enough for her and this hurt his feelings.

Jane felt anger welling up in her and she took a moment to compose herself outwardly.  But inwardly her thoughts were racing:  How could he be so ungrateful?

They tried to talk about it, but their discussion devolved into an argument, so they agreed to take a couple of days apart to cool down and then talk again.

When Ed called her a few days later, he told her that, even though, he appreciated how much she helped him to be more fit and healthy, he felt hurt and annoyed that she was now trying to get him to change his reading habits--as if she was saying that he wasn't good enough.  He asked her if she could accept him as he is without trying to change him.

At that point, Jane realized how much she hurt and offended him and she felt badly about this.  But she also realized that she didn't want to accept him without trying to change him and this was a problem for each of them as well as for their relationship.

She thought about what her friend told her and she realized that, once again, she was on the brink of ruining another relationship by trying to change and "improve" Ed.

Although she felt confused and conflicted, Jane apologized to Ed for hurting his feelings and she told him that she needed more time to think about why she was doing this.  So, they both agreed to take a break from each other for a few weeks until they could both sort out their feelings.

At the suggestion of her best friend, Jane got into therapy to try to understand why she was always trying to change and "improve" the men that she went out with and why she kept doing it even though things ended badly each time.

Exploring her family history revealed that Jane's mother did the same thing with Jane's father, pushing him into one self improvement endeavor after another.  And even though Jane's father, who was passive, went along with it, her mother would still express to Jane, from the time Jane was a young child, how dissatisfied she felt with her marriage.

Jane became aware that, without even realizing it, she came to believe that all men needed improving and it was the woman's role to change them.

When these unconscious beliefs came conscious for Jane, she was surprised and dismayed.

Awareness is the first step in making a change and, with this new awareness Jane realized why she tried to "make over" her boyfriends.  She also realized that she wanted to stop.

Using EMDR, over time, we processed her childhood experiences that were triggering her current behavior (see my article:  Overcoming Childhood Trauma That Affects Your Relationship).  She was able to process her anger and disappointment towards both parents as well as the distorted beliefs that arose from her childhood experiences.

Relationships: Learn to Stop Trying to Change and "Improve" Your Partner

Once the triggering experiences were gradually processed using EMDR, Jane no longer had the urge to try to change Ed, and her relationship improved over time as she accepted him as he was and she stopped trying to change him.

People who get into one relationship after the next where they're trying to change their romantic partners tend to have underlying issues that trigger this behavior.

Often, these underlying issues are unconscious and once they are made conscious, this awareness is the first step in changing this dynamic.

But awareness isn't enough.  The underlying issues need to be processed and experiential therapy, like EMDR, is usually the best type of therapy for processing.

Usually, after the underlying issues that are triggering the behavior are processed, the current behavior tends to change.

In the fictionalized vignette in this article I gave a particular family dynamic that triggered these issues for "Jane," but there can be many other underlying issues.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you have a tendency to try to change and "improve" your romantic partners, you could benefit from seeing a licensed mental health professional who uses experiential therapy so you can work through the underlying issues that are triggering this behavior.

Overcoming the urge to change your romantic partner is beneficial for you, your partner and your relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.