Can You Spare Some Change?
As common wisdom tells us, when we’re involved with someone, we can’t expect them to change. We have to accept them for who they are.
Or do we?
Jody and Drew’s Story
When Jody met Drew, he was in his last year of art school. Immediately, she was impressed by how diligently he was working towards graduation. He even sold two pieces at his senior art show. After graduating, though, Drew stopped painting altogether. Instead, he began working a series of menial jobs, none of which were art-related. Jody did her best to be supportive, figuring that he was just burnt out from having worked so hard while he was in school. For his part, Drew maintained that as soon as he paid off some of his student loans, he would start painting again.
Five years passed, and nothing changed. Drew was still working the same menial jobs and hadn’t so much as touched his brushes in five years. Jody tried to encourage him to start painting again, but he seemed unmotivated and dispassionate, always explaining that he still needed to make more money. By this time, they were living together, and she was effectively supporting both of them. Tired of his excuses, she asked him to move out.
Faced with a break-up, Drew finally promised that he would work harder at his art. Jody decided to give him another chance, and then another, and then yet another. But, his attempts to paint never lasted very long. Ultimately, she realized that he just wasn’t an ambitious person. Any changes in behavior that she elicited only came about because he was trying to appease her, and as soon as he felt comfortable again, he would revert to his complacent ways. She broke up with him one last time and made it clear that the relationship was over.
Mary and Jack’s Story
When Mary first met Jack, he was working towards a doctorate in molecular biology. Herself an intellectual, she was immediately drawn to his educational background. After graduating, though, Jack announced that he was sick of academic research and wanted to pursue a new career. He just didn’t know what yet. Over the next eight months, Jack worked a series of menial jobs, rarely making over $10 an hour. Naturally, Mary was concerned over his apparent lack of direction.
The deal-breaking moment came one night when Mary and Jack were at a bar with some friends. After Jack bought Mary a drink, one of Jack’s friends joked that, given how much Jack was making now, she should be the one buying him the drinks. The comment ignited all the doubts that she had been suppressing. Within two weeks, she decided that she could not live with Jack’s lack of ambition and broke up with him.
Jack made numerous attempts to win Mary back, but he failed miserably every single time. He finally decided to focus on his own life instead, and soon after, he realized that he did have a passion for science. However, the passion was in teaching science, rather than “doing” science. Armed with fresh ambition, he found a full-time teaching job within a year. When Mary heard of Jack’s turnaround, she remembered how focused and motivated he could be when he was passionate about something. Her feelings for him resurfaced and they ultimately reunited.
The realization that our romantic partner lacks a quality that we find essential is a common theme in relationships. When this happens, is it reasonable to hope that our partner will change? Or will it be an inevitable deal-breaker that ends the relationship? Despite the parallels, Jody’s and Mary’s stories had starkly contrasting endings. So why did one couple succeed, while the other one fail? I believe I can explain by drawing an analogy from chemistry:
Chemists use a term called “characteristic property” to describe the properties of a substance that can never change. For example, water can come in a solid, liquid, or gas state. However, it is always made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Thus, water’s physical state (solid, liquid, or gas) is not a characteristic property, while its chemical composition (what atoms it comprises) is a characteristic property. Because they cannot change, characteristic properties are used to define chemical substances.
Humans, of course, are slightly more complicated to describe. Still, I think we can use the same delineations. For lack of creativity on my part, I’ll use the same term—“characteristic property”—to describe the qualities that define a person and thus can never change. These are the characteristics of a partner that we have to be willing to accept. And I believe that, in any relationship, we must learn to separate our partner’s characteristic properties from the non-characteristic ones.
Jody realized that one of Drew’s characteristic properties was his lack of ambition. His actions revealed that he was perfectly okay working at a menial job, and he simply didn’t have the drive to pursue his dreams. Thus, five years passed without him lifting a paintbrush. Mary, on the other hand, realized that Jack had simply been in the wrong career, and once he found his passion, he pursued them with an ambition that he seemed to lack before. Within months, Jack had embarked on a new career. Both Jody and Mary saw a lack of ambition in their partners and wanted them to change. However, the trait that Jody wanted to change was a characteristic property for Drew, while the same apparent trait that Mary wanted to change was not a characteristic property for Jack.
Having witnessed the success of Mary and Jack’s relationship at the same time as the failure of Jody and Drew’s, I realize now that wanting our partner to change is perfectly okay. We just have to make sure that the trait we’re hoping to change isn’t a characteristic property. Below are some comments that I’ve heard people make regarding their partners. In each of these cases, the trait in question may very well be a characteristic property. But, I can also think of several scenarios where the trait might be caused by extenuating circumstances:
“I wish he made more money.”
In the same vein as Jody’s and Mary’s concerns, is he poor because he has just embarked on a brand new career? Or is he poor because he has no ambition and is content to eke out a meager existence? If money matters that much to you, make sure you find a man with ambition. Or a trust fund.
“She talks too much.”
Does she talk because she’s excited about a new relationship? Or is she a social butterfly who has to chat with everyone in the room? If she’s just happy to see you, I’m sure she’ll understand if you want to sit quietly with her once in a while. On the other hand, if she needs constant attention from multiple people, and you prefer quiet one-on-one time, she’s probably not the one for you. Unless you have multiple personalities.
“I wish he was more worldly.”
Is he happy with the little bubble that he’s created for himself and has no desire to venture beyond? Or does he dream of seeing the world, but he just needs someone to spark that passion for travel? If you love to immerse yourself in other cultures, and he’s never lived more than 20 minutes from his parents, mama’s boy may not be joining you on your two-year humanitarian mission in northern Namibia.
“She’s so clingy.”
Is she really that insecure and needy? Maybe she’s just caught up in a new relationship and wants to spend time getting to know you. Or maybe you’re just annoyed because she’s getting in the way of you hitting on other women.
“He drinks too much.”
Does he actually exhibit alcoholic tendencies? Maybe he’s just a social drinker, but his guidelines for social drinking are different from yours. Never underestimate the standard for what constitutes “social drinking” for a guy. Especially a guy hanging out with his college buddies.
“I wish she was in better shape.”
Is she not physically fit because she’s overworked and has no time for exercise? Or does she simply dislike physical activity? If you’re an active person, maybe you can be the impetus to get her away from her desk. On the other hand, if the idea of sweating disgusts her, you may have an incompatibility issue.
If we ever find ourselves becoming dissatisfied with our partner’s behavior, we have to figure out if change is possible or if we’re dealing with a characteristic property. It may take years to do so, but only after we figure it out will we be able to decide if the one we’re with is truly the One we’re to be with. If we do uncover a characteristic property, though, we have a choice to make:
Will we despair if our partner can’t give us the change we desire? Or will we spare our partner our desire for change?
With Jack finally pursuing a career that he actually cared about, Mary noticed a definite improvement in his demeanor. His renewed optimism helped them mend their relationship, and they remained together for several more years. Although they ultimately broke up due to other differences, Mary and Jack remain friends to this day.
For over a year after their break-up, Drew regularly contacted Jody, promising that he would change and asking for another chance. For her part, Jody often found her resolve wavering under Drew’s charm. It wasn’t until she met and started dating someone else that Drew finally stopped calling her. Jody found that her new boyfriend possessed many of the traits that she desired, but that story is still being written….