Posted by: Marie | September 20, 2010

(404) Reader Input: Asking others to change

Post #404

Solicitation for Reader Input

This last week, my friend, Evan, submitted a comment that got me to thinking about the times I would like other people to change how they are showing up in the world so that my experience of them could be more comfortable.

I found myself debating if it is acceptable and/or healthy for me to ask others to change. Would that be audacious of me? Or would it be reasonable? Of course, that stirred up additional questions . . .

Are there times it is acceptable and healthy for one person to ask another to change his behavior? His personality? His attitude? His expectations?

Under what conditions is it acceptable and healthy for one to ask another to change? Does the motivation for the request play a role? In other words, is it okay if the reason is because the requestor is embarrassed of the other (embarrassed of how he dresses, how he eats in public, how he uses foul language, etc.)

Is asking someone to change okay if it is for his own good? For example: asking someone to stop smoking or asking someone to help keep the house in a livable condition . . . ?? How intolerable should a behavior or a way of being become before we dare ask someone to change?

What role does all this play in setting boundaries? How is “If you hit me again I’ll leave the relationship” different from “I won’t love you anymore if you gamble away our money again”? Are those examples of setting boundaries, manipulation, asking in a healthy way for someone to change, or something else?

I really want to hear your thoughts!! Please send me your comments!


  1. I’m looking forward to seeing the comments too!

    • Hey, Evan –

      I’m glad you wrote the comment . . . it sure made me think!

      – Marie

  2. Ooooooh, this is a really good one — and it’s something I really wrestled with in my current relationship — so much so that my Amazon and I ended up seeing a couples counselor in addition to the work I was doing in my regular therapy.

    I have, as you’ve probably noticed, a very forceful take-charge personality. It makes me *NUTS* when people don’t take the action they obviously (from my perspective) need to take. This is very challenging for me in any personal relationships I’ve ever had, be they friendships, family relationships, or intimate relationships, because I am always nudging whomever I am with toward whatever their next step should be. And I have therefore always felt that I am trying to change people inappropriately.

    Now, this may not apply to everyone, but it’s interesting enough that I’m going to share it here; it was one of the weirdest (to me) things that my therapist ever put in front of me. Because you’re not supposed to try to change people, right? You’re supposed to accept them. And that’s what I said to her.

    That was when she explained the interesting concept to me of healthy relationships having a strong element of people taking influence from one another. She knows I take influence from the Amazon, because I have clearly described, on more than one occasion, how her example and the way she points me out to myself have made me more patient, more compassionate, etc. So the question becomes — do I actually want to change people, or do I want to evolve them?

    It’s a fine line, because it’s true that in most cases, people’s evolving would also make them more pleasant and enjoyable for me personally to be around. But — my therapist wanted to know if I had ever wanted someone to change in a way that was antithetical to who they actually were, and my answer was no, I haven’t. What I tend to want is for people to become the next version of themselves, and the things that bother me tend to be stuff that is piled on top of who they really are. For example, my Amazon tends to be very passive in certain situations. I know it’s out of fear, rather than out of genuine acceptance. I really want to see her go through the stages of getting angry, then working through that to genuine acceptance — which may look passive, but will be consciously chosen — rather than being motivated by fear. Our life together would be nicer for me if she achieved this, but — I think my desire to see her change is actually more about where she is going than what I want.

    So the weird thing my therapist suggested is that I might actually know what other people should be doing, and so it might be okay for me to want to motivate people to change. This was a strange idea to me, and again, I don’t know that it applies universally, and frankly, maybe she was off her rocker; I don’t know.

    But I do know this — I can’t make anyone change; they have to do it themselves. I can ask, I can lead by example, I can explain. But I can’t do it for them, and they can’t do it for my sake — they have to do it for their own sake.

    This gets tricky, too, because sometimes in a relationship people are initially motivated by doing something for the other party. One of the things that the Amazon and I wrestled with in couples counseling was her complete inability to tell me what she liked about me. Coupled with her passivity, I had a horrible sense that she was in the relationship because I’d asked her to be and she couldn’t think of anything better to do, rather than because she wanted to be. I really needed her to change this. But by the same token, she needed to learn to trust me enough to express herself, in order to get to her own next level of intimacy. See what I mean? I was asking her to change, but it was also what she needed to to do evolve. What motivated her was that I needed her to do it — she forced herself out of her comfort zone in order to please me. But once she did it, and got the huge reward of my increased emotional security (which made me a lot easier to be around) she saw the benefit to herself as well, and continued to push her own comfort zone because the value of doing so had been proven to her. This is what taking influence is all about.

    Regarding being embarrassed: nobody else can embarrass you; you can only embarrass yourself. If you are with someone who behaves badly in public, he is embarrassing himself, not you. This used to come up all the time with my parents — my mother being embarrassed by my father’s drunkenness. He wasn’t embarrassing her; he was embarrassing himself. But the real core of what was going on with her was that she was ashamed of herself for being with him. That was nothing to do with him, and everything to do with her. So I tend to think that in those situations, the person just needs to leave; clearly it’s not working. There is a difference between being with someone who could use a little gentle polishing, and someone who reinforces one’s feelings of low self-esteem by being an asshole in public. So no, I don’t think it’s okay to ask anyone to change because they embarrass me. When I feel that way, I look at myself, and always find the shame there, not with the other person.

    “I won’t love you any more if you gamble all our money away,” is indeed manipulative. Love should be unconditional. “I will still love you, but I won’t be able to continue to build a life with you if you gamble all our money away” might be closer to what should, ideally, be the truth. Love can exist in many situations where a life together can’t exist. You can love someone who is screwed up. You can even love someone who is abusive. And you can make the choice to set boundaries to keep yourself safe, and still be loving. I think, personally, that healthy boundaries are not threats; they’re simply statements. “I am not able to stay in a situation where I fear physical abuse. I love you, and in these circumstances, I need to leave.” The change is up to the other person; you’re just stating your position … and more importantly, sticking to it. Using love as a reward for good behavior is what a lot of us learned from emotionally abusive parents, and it works about as well with other adults as it did with us as kids. :-) Love should be love. And it can coexist with setting a boundary; it should never be withheld or used as a threat.

    Thus endeth the diatribe.

    • Hey, David –

      I had to read through what you wrote a couple of times . . . you made some really great points. I, too, have always believed I shouldn’t ask people to change, I should just accept them. However, if I’m cohabitating with someone and he is leaving messes all over the house and expecting me to clean them up, or if he is spending our shared money in a way that sabotages our ability to pay bills, I think I have the right to ask him to change his behavior, just as he has the right to ask me to not run the air conditioning with the windows open or to not use his razor to shave my legs.

      And, I also find myself wanting people to (using your word) ‘evolve’ when I see them engaging in harmful or dishonoring behavior. For example, the guy to whom I was married for a couple of months had a habit of blaming everyone else for the problems he was clearly creating. He quit white-collar jobs because he was tired of doing the same thing over and over. He dropped friendships because he found their conversations boring. He dropped classes because he thought the content was stupid. He blamed me for his lack of happiness in the marriage.

      I tried to talk to him about all of this — about how his attitude of entitlement was at the root of his discontent. I told him he needed to take responsibility for what he got out of his involvement with others by shifting what he put into it. His response was that he was taking responsibility by changing to better jobs, friends, classes, etc. — ‘better’ meaning ones that [he believed] would feed his need to be spoon-fed.

      I ached to see him shift to a more healthy way of showing up in the world. I also knew that it would only be a matter of time before his attitude would kill our relationship. So, I was trying to affect him for his own sake as well as for the sake of our marriage. But, I didn’t know how to balance this with how I had been taught to not ask others to change.

      So . . . long story short, I really like what you have presented here . . . it actually answers a long-standing dilemma. Thank you!

      – Marie

  3. I think there will always be times, even in the best of relationships, where we ask one another to work on things or make changes in order to be healthier, happier, and in order to accommodate one another.

    However, if you find yourself needing to resort to threats in order to convince your partner to make changes–then you’re in an unhealthy relationship to some extent.

    First off, there is hopefully a level of basic compatibility that exists between you and your partner. Now, I’ve probably been way luckier than I deserve in that area, but I think some people settle for much less than they deserve.

    I keep seeing people close to me who are in long-term relationships where they don’t appear to have enough common ground to allow things to run smoothly.

    If you are constantly having issues with being frustrated around your partner’s behaviors, attitudes, choices, interests, etc and feeling that these things conflict with your basic tendencies…that’s not a good sign.

    If you reach a level of commonality where, you know, 80 or 90 percent of the time you are on the same page with things, then you can chip away on the ten or twenty percent of things that provide challenges.

    And this is done in a gentle way and takes time, for most stuff. Now, there are times where my wife has kicked me in the ass for bad behavior or not following through on something (like housework etc), but those times are rare. And normally I really listen to her if she’s reached her breaking point with something.

    I’m not sure that anything I said here has been quite concrete enough to satisfy the question at hand…but I will say that it’s shocking to me and my wife how many people settle for mediocre, unrewarding relationships where there is very little common ground, passion, and excitement for one another.

    I used to think that what me and my wife share was impossible. In fact, when I first met her, I scoffed openly at notions of marriage, romance, and “soul mates.” And yet here I stand 5 years later knowing I did indeed find my soul mate, I am married very happily, and constantly trying to find new ways to romance this woman.

    So don’t give up on what you know in your heart and gut is possible, don’t settle, and one day I believe you will find that person with whom you can build a strong and healthy foundation, and a wonderful life together.

    • Hey, Aaron –

      I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that, if someone is having to resort to threats [to leave?] in order to get the other to behave in a respectful manner, it is a good indication the relationship is unhealthy and likely doomed.

      I have always had to resort to threats (and follow through on them) in order to get any level of cooperation from a partner. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be with someone who made it a habit to operate in a thoughtful manner. I guess I’ve never considered the possibility that could be the case.

      So, a lightbulb came on for me when I read your comment . . . thank you!

      – Marie

      • Marie, you said: “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be with someone who made it a habit to operate in a thoughtful manner. I guess I’ve never considered the possibility that could be the case.”

        Well, it is VERY much a possibility, and you need to trust that someone like that is out there right now in the world. If you walk around expecting to find men who you need to constantly force to evolve and change and kick in the ass to treat you and themselves with a modicum of respect–then that is exactly what you will find.

        Just like with your therapists–once you became determined to find a healthy therapeutic partner, they came out of the woodwork and you suddenly had all of these healthier options. Any one of those people was probably a sight better than Mark.

        But Mark, when you first found him, fit the mold of what you expected and believed you were entitled to in a therapist. Now you would never step foot in an office with someone like him–or at least, you wouldn’t stick it out for more than 5 minutes.

        Take the attitude you have about therapists and just switch it into a relationship. You already know what you want and yearn for, and what attributes are unhealthy and not to be tolerated. So just believe in that, trust your instincts. Relationships are obviously hard and more complicated than once or twice a month therapy sessions, but the principles aren’t so different.

        You are figuring it out, and you just need to keep trusting and believing in yourself and other people too. Are men kind of jerky a lot of times? Sure! People in general are jerky a lot of times. But there are men who are kind and good and respectful and want to change and become better people. And you will meet more of them once you keep your eyes peeled for ’em!

  4. Ditto Aaron. Right on, man.

  5. Okay, David and Aaron . . . I hear you loud and clear . . . I’ll keep working on that, LOL!! Thank you for the encouragement!

    – Marie

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