As a society, we tend to romanticize the idea of changing someone.
It’s a common romance story trope to have two people meet, one flawed but with a heart of gold (usually the man), one more or less perfect already (usually the woman), and through their love, they both become compatible, happy lovers.
A more recent example of this might be the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies, which have come out with a new installment consistently around Valentine’s Day since 2015. These movies follow Anastasia Steele as she meets and falls in love with the wealthy and conventionally attractive Christian Grey, only to find out that he is emotionally distant, deeply traumatized from childhood, emotionally abusive, possessive, and uninterested in a romantic relationship. Yet, through her love and her love alone, she manages to train him into becoming her husband and (presumably) a better man.
Now, I wish that I could say that the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies invented this trope, but I sort of feel like it’s existed since the dawn of time. Growing up, I had this notion that romantic love was supposed to be a force so strong that it could not only withstand but defeat anything. If you were a bad person, then the compulsion for romantic love would be enough to lead you out of your habits and into the light.
And I think it’s significant that women, in particular, are told that this is possible. From the time that we’re small, girls everywhere are told to romanticize the “fixer-upper:” the rude, disrespectful, selfish man who we can teach to respect us with time, patience, and love—the beast to our beauty. We’re encouraged to put up with unpleasant behaviors because “we can change him” since he’s a good, deep down guy.
But here’s the thing that everyone should hear, whether they be men, women, flawed, or somehow, impossibly perfect: we cannot change people.
That isn’t to say that people can’t change. They most certainly can, but they need to be the one at the helm of that change. Not us.
We can stand beside someone for their entire lives, telling them what to do, how to act, what to say or think, but if they aren’t hearing us, then it won’t matter. We can have the best intentions, the best advice, the most confidence that they can be a better person, but we cannot help people unless they want to be helped.
I think that this is an important lesson for all of us to learn, regardless of which side of the change we intend to be on.
If we want to change our loved one, and if we believe so whole-heartedly that we can do it no matter what, then we set ourselves up for failure. When they inevitably return to their harmful behavior, then we blame ourselves for it. We wonder what we could have done differently. We wonder why our love wasn’t enough to stop it. We tell ourselves that it will be different next time—and maybe it will be, but only if the other has perfectly, completely understood that they need to change. If they don’t understand this, then they’ll just end up doing the same thing again because they don’t have a reason not to.
If we hold onto this idea of being able to change someone, then it allows us to excuse their behavior and stick with them, even when they harm us. They might even use this idea against us, telling us that it will be different next time, that they can change, but not if we leave them or hurt them. They might hold desperately onto us, taking what they need and giving nothing back. And we allow them to keep doing it in the hope that they might eventually stop.
If someone in our lives is flawed, self-destructive, or outwardly toxic, then we only have two choices: we can accept them as they are, in full knowledge that they might never change, or we can decide that what they do does not serve us and will only hurt us in the long run.
There is no shame in either option. There is nothing wrong with us if we leave because there was nothing we could have done that would have fixed them. Their flaws are not our responsibility. And there is nothing wrong with us if we stay, as long as we understand and are prepared to deal with the potential consequences.
And perhaps all this sounds a little bit harsh, particularly for the people who are dealing with some sort of flaw or habit that they hope to be able to change, but I don’t think it should be. On the contrary, it can be a very liberating thought.
Our salvation does not lie in another person. We do not need a hero; we can be our own. And that isn’t as easy as it sounds: we need to want it. We need to be able to recognize that what we are doing does not serve us or the people around us. We need to know that we deserve better. We need to put in an effort and pick ourselves up after bad days, and we need to forgive ourselves when we inevitably fail. And we can do it. It is possible, but there is a reason why very few people succeed. We need to be strong. We need to be a warrior.
We cannot do any of this if we put all of the work required for our change into another person.
This idea of romantic love being strong enough to incite change is incredibly harmful—for both sides. Romantic love can be a powerful force. It can be what inspires people to want to change, and it can bring out the best of people, but it cannot be the sole reason for any permanent change. For that, we need a very different sort of love: we need to find self-love.