How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?
Only one, but that lightbulb has to really want to change.
The idea of whether a person can change has been a recurring theme in my life over the last few weeks. Not only in my own recent relationship, but in those of many people around me. So many of us find ourselves wondering if the person we love can possibly change and be who we need them to be in a relationship.
Conventional wisdom says that you can’t change someone, and this is certainly true. Anyone who has ever tried can likely attest to the immutable fact that you cannot change another human being. And anyone who has ever been another person’s “project” can tell you how awful and demeaning it is to be “worked on.”
But people do change.
The catch is that they don’t ever change for us, or usually in the time frames we might hope for, or even in the ways we’d intended.
People change when — and only when — they decide they want to be a better version of themselves. Every 12-step program, successful diet or exercise plan, or counseling attempt begins with someone who was tired of their status quo and decided to try a different way of being.
It starts with someone realizing that to get a different outcome, you usually have to make different choices.
My dad is my best example of how someone can make big changes, and it’s never too late. My dad is a smart guy, who had a very successful career, many lifelong friends, and five well-adjusted kids. He’s good at so many things. Except relationships. He has been married at least 5 times (my mother, his fourth wife, insists the number is higher than that, but, really, at that point, does it even matter?). He has likely made every relationship mistake you can make at least once. I think it goes without saying that being a good partner was not his forte — or maybe even his priority? — for most of his life. But, as happens for some people, there came a point at which he was sick of his life. He was fed up with his failed relationships and finally ready to take a long, hard look at their cause. He had just turned 60.
When my dad attacked his personal growth, he did it like he attacked anything: with focus and determination and complete commitment to finishing the project. He retreated from the world and sailed a boat from Hawaii to Seattle and back. Several times. While he was off playing Old Man and the Sea, I was living in England, and I would receive from him rambling letters about his journey to self-awareness. They were fascinating, not so much for the what was said, but for their tone. It was the subtext of understanding and growing humility that informed me of the change that was taking place in my dad. I was fascinated and tentatively proud of him, but wary, too. Lots of “changes” don’t stick. But when I next saw my dad, the change in him was palpable. Gone was the uptight, closed off, and emotionally distant man I’d known. In his place was a warm, affectionate man who laughed easily, smiled easily and (gasp!) cried easily. It was like the person I’d always suspected to be inside of him had finally surfaced.
But he wasn’t done. None of us is ever “done.” And I think the best self-improvement journeys are made with a supportive and loving partner along for some portion of the ride. In my dad’s case, it is his fifth wife, “Mary.” He and Mary have a relationship built on a lifetime of friendship and the intensity of a love they both describe quite seriously as a “soul connection.” When he finished sailing his boats, he immediately went to her and pursued her, ready to be an engaged and connected partner. With her by his side, he has continued to grow and explore and nourish the best parts of himself — his integrity, his warmth, his honor, his natural curiosity and intelligence, his unwavering loyalty to family and friends. In the autumn and winter of his life, he grew up and has finally become the man he always wanted to be.
But he didn’t do it for Mary. He did it for himself. Which is the only way any of us can ever do it.
I do think, however, that even though we cannot change for someone else, we can change because of them. I think this happens a lot after a divorce or the end of a significant relationship. The extreme grief over losing our partner, and sometimes our whole family, can prompt us to make some big adjustments to our personal growth. I know that my ex-husband and I have both taken our divorce as a catalyst to try and do better. Loss can be a powerful motivator to figure things out and address long-standing patterns that aren’t serving us well.
My friend Rob is presently undergoing what is basically a complete overhaul of himself as a relationship partner after losing a women he loved deeply. Her departure left him grieving and reeling and determined to examine his mistakes with clarity and objectivity. His goal is to be the kind of partner he wants to attract, to be a quality man whom any amazing woman would be lucky to have. I’m incredibly proud of him, and of his progress. What he’s doing is brutally hard and not something most of us would ever willingly undertake.
In fact, a lot of people seem to let themselves off the hook by saying things like, “I seem to attract all the jerks” or “Why are all women so high-maintenance and crazy?” without ever examining the common denominator in the equation: themselves. If you seem to keep getting the same kind of people, with the same kind of problems, maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s you. Maybe it’s time to re-examine how you approach your relationships or what draws you to a person and really question the health of those decisions. If something isn’t working for us anymore, it’s usually a good idea to try a different approach. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
Sometimes change doesn’t happen until the alternative becomes unbearable. This is true of addicts who hit rock bottom and people who find themselves exhausted from chaotic, crazy relationships that leave them drained and sad. It’s also true of people who leave marriages after years of despair and unhappiness. Sometimes the change, no matter how difficult or terrifying, is still better than the status quo.
The head pastor at my church recently completed a sermon series called “Reverse Engineering.” The series was directed at the men in the congregation and was based on the idea that we all need to decide who we want to be and then reverse engineer ourselves from that point — in other words, we have to figure out how to get to the person we want to be, because it doesn’t just happen. Not for most of us, at least.
I believe that people can change. I believe that people can be influenced by our actions. But I don’t believe that we can change them or expect that they will change simply because they love us or it’s the right thing to do. We can’t do the work for them or even help them beyond the most basic emotional support. All the heavy lifting has to be theirs and theirs alone.
And the same is true for us.