True or False: We can and should try to change our romantic partners.
Answer: False. But that doesn’t mean our partner’s can’t or shouldn’t try to change themselves. We can be a major influence for those changes we hope to see. Sometimes we even find ourselves changing because of our partner.
When “me” becomes a “we,” there are many opportunities for change. Sometimes those changes happen in the relationship as a whole, like making a single Facebook account for a couple. But the most common changes happen at an individual level. When two different individuals begin spending so much time together, it is only a matter of time before those two individuals become more like their partner.
In a recent study, Kevin McIntyre at Trinity University found that allowing ourselves to become more like our partner can play an important role in relationships. However, not all changes have a positive influence. The study revealed four main types of what are called “self-changes,” or how one partner changes him or herself to become more like a partner, and only half of them were for the better.
4 Types of Change
- Self-expansion (Positive): One type of change is when we start doing or talking about new things. The addition of new and positive traits and behaviors represents an expansion of who we are as a person. We build on our existing positive qualities and beliefs by engaging in conversations about topics of interest to our partners and participating in activities that they enjoy which we otherwise would not have considered.
What happens to us?
Through self-expansion, we gain new capabilities and relationship skills, new insights into important issues, and discover new ways of doing things. This process also allows us to become more like the person we want to be. This may not be as possible outside of relationships.
- Self-contraction (Negative): Sometimes in relationships it is possible to lose some of our positive beliefs about ourselves. This may be a result of having less time to spend on a favorite hobby, or disinterest from our partner about something important to us. In many ways, self-contraction is losing part of ourselves because of the lack of support from our partner.
What happens to us?
Unlike self-expansion, self-contraction represents loss of something important to us. This can leave us feeling less than who we want to be, causing us to lose self-esteem or passion for previously important issues. This could quickly lead to resentment or a lack of hope.
- Self-pruning (Positive): It is just as possible to let go of less desirable traits and habits in relationships as it is to gain positive traits. Just like pruning unhealthy branches can make a tree stronger, we can become better people by pruning the negative qualities of our self. This process easily occurs in relationships as we allow our partners to show us new ways of doing things or thinking about things that may be more positive than our previous methods. Our romantic partners can also act as an outside voice of reason and support to cut back on negativity.
What happens to us?
Self-pruning us a helpful process that can increase our satisfaction with ourselves as a person. We may find freedom in being released from previously held beliefs that limited who we believed we could become. We may find hope for a better future by avoiding mistakes we made when we were stuck in unhealthy habits.
- Self-adulteration (Negative): Unfortunately, no one is perfect including our romantic partners. This means there is room in relationships for us to adopt new, negative habits or behaviors. This may best be seen in becoming more negative in our communication with each other. Increases in negative perceptions of ourselves may also result from incomplete resolution of previous difficulties in the relationship.
What happens to us?
Becoming more negative about ourselves is obviously not a good thing. By adopting more negative beliefs and perceptions, it may become too easy to lose sight of our positive selves. We may also be more likely to get into harmful cycles of self-blame and guilt, especially if we do not see examples of positive alternatives in our partner.
How Change Affects Our Relationships
As we would expect, those in the study who experienced increases in positive traits and loss of negative traits had better outcomes in the relationship than those who experienced loss of positive traits and gain of negative traits. They were generally more satisfied and committed to the relationship.
Results of the study further suggest that individuals who experienced self-expansion and self-pruning found their partners more attractive than other potential partners, likely as a result of focusing on how good of an influence they found in their partners. They were also more giving of themselves and respectful of their partners, allowing for more forgiveness and less thoughts of “getting back” at a partner for the mistakes they made.
How to Get More of the Good
While we will likely experience some of all four types of changes in every relationship, chances are we would rather make more of the good changes. So what can you do to increase the positives and keep away the negatives?
- Having a clear picture of the kind of person you want to be can give you a point of reference to determine if a particular change is helping you get there or moving you further away.
- Make sure there is space in your relationship for both you and your partner to express yourselves. If you feel like a part of you is being rejected, share this with your partner and help them understand why it is so important to you. Allow them to do the same.
- Set aside some regular time to sit down with your partner so you can both evaluate if you like or dislike a particular change that is happening in the relationship.
- Express appreciation for the good things you see in your partner. This will help you focus more on those traits and adopt those rather than focusing on the negatives. You may even find that you will feel better about the relationship entirely.
Try taking our RELATE assessment to help you identify the positive or negative traits you might want to change.
Written by: Dallin