People rarely change. Not really.
Our movies and novels and self-help books all seem to be based on the idea that personal change is common. Without serious character development in fiction, movies and novels would be boring. If a self-help book said, “Don’t bother, because you’re probably not going to change anyway,” nobody would buy it.
We’re culturally conditioned to believe that substantial change in a person is common, but reality is far different. And it’s even more rare when a person changes someone else — because humans aren’t puppets who can be controlled on the inside.
If I try to change someone else — even if we both agree the change is for the better — I’m very unlikely to succeed. It’s a foolish thing to try. Even if you do succeed, the person who’s forced the change will always hold a superior position — and that will never allow for a healthy and equal relationship.
Even though I know all this, I’ve tried it anyway. Not consciously, but I’ve done it, thinking I had the best of intentions. As recently as about five years ago, I tried to change a woman I dated — and it was a miserable failure for both of us.
We’re going to call her Angie. She had known me casually for about seven or eight years, I guess. We had met at a place she used to work, but I hadn’t seen her for something like four or five years. She had followed me on Facebook, but I rarely noticed her.
She got in touch with me out of the blue and wanted to talk. We met and she confessed that she had always been romantically interested in me but hadn’t ever made it obvious — and now she wanted to know if I’d be interested in dating her.
It was a mistake from the start, but I agreed.
I had been trying to get over the end of a relationship that had left me bitterly disappointed and confused, so I selfishly thought that spending time with Angie would help me. I was wrong about that, but even that error wasn’t the biggest problem.
Angie was a terrible match for me. Or maybe I was a terrible match for her. Whichever way you see it, the pairing wasn’t good. I knew that, but I allowed myself to think things would somehow be different — that she might change because of being with me. I don’t think I really believed that, but I wanted to believe it.
Our interests were very different. Our backgrounds were very different. Although she had been to college, she wasn’t nearly as bright as the women I’ve typically dated. She wasn’t well-read. She wasn’t interested in the ideas that fascinate me. She was even from a very rural area — and had the accent and grammar to match.
Angie is a sweet and attractive woman who would have been a wonderful match for a lot of men. She just wasn’t a good fit for me.
When I look back on the few months when I went out with her, I realize that I was unconsciously playing Professor Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle. I exposed her to ideas and information that she had never heard of — and she tried to understand. She could tell which things were important to me, so she tried to make herself more like what I wanted. She even tried to change the way she spoke.
After four months or so, I had to end something which never should have started. Things didn’t end well. She was angry. Some of her anger was simply from normal rejection — and some of it was the painful feeling that she couldn’t be what I wanted her to be.
I was upset with myself after the relationship ended. I was upset with my bad judgment in letting the relationship start and I was even more frustrated with how poorly I handled ending things. On top of that, I beat myself up for allowing the relationship to rock along for months — even though I knew immediately that it had been a mistake.
Angie wasn’t going to change me — and I certainly wasn’t going to change her.
There are times when we start relationships with the expectation that something can be great — and we’re simply wrong. I can’t give myself that excuse. I just used terrible judgment from the beginning — and I was selfish not to consider the inevitable effects on her.
I’ve thought a lot about this mistake over the last five years. In several cases, I’ve turned away from similar mistakes since then, so maybe I can at least say I learned something.
I was flattered when Angie first told me that she wanted to date me. My ego liked the fact that an attractive young woman was pursuing me. I’ll confess that it made me feel good about myself.
But that momentary ego satisfaction was a terrible bargain. The months I spent with her were unhappy. The ending was ugly. She was angry and I felt guilty.
Angie would have been very happy to let me change her. She told me that. But despite her good intentions, I wasn’t going to change her. If she was going to change, those changes had to start inside herself.
She offered me the strings with which to control her. Just like a puppet. But the would-be puppet and would-be puppet-master were both left unhappy.
I’m never going to change anybody else. Improving myself is already a full-time job.