Can People Really Change?

Couples come to counseling secretly hoping that I can change their partner. They may take some responsibility for their part of the problem, but think the other is mostly to blame for the bulk of their unhappiness. So the question is “Can people change?” The answer is yes, and no. We can change our habits and behaviors but our personality tends to be rather fixed.

Personality is a pattern of thoughts, behavior and feelings that make up who we are. It is partly genetic, partially formed by early childhood experiences, traumatic events or from deeply held values. Once formed, personality doesn’t change dramatically.

Personality can be influenced by a break in your patterns – by new life changing experiences or trauma – but only so much change is possible. Motivation, effort and repetition are required to change. One needs motivation in order to make lasting change. You have to want to change in order to avoid negative consequences or achieve important rewards. Change requires effort to place yourself outside of your comfort zone. Repetition builds new pathways in the brain so that new patterns are more solidly formed.

So what about your spouse’s annoying traits? How much change is possible? A marital researcher, John Gottman, describes two types of marital conflict: the Solvable and the Unsolvable. He says that 69% of what couples argue about is not solvable. When couples argue about the same thing over and over without resolution, they are in conflict over unsolvable problems that stem from differences in personality or deeply held values. An introvert is never going to an extrovert across all settings; an overachiever will never be a slacker; a couch potato will never be an extreme sports enthusiast; the chronically late person will never be consistently early; the clean-freak will never be comfortable in a dirty house and vice-versa. But successful couples accept differences without getting into power struggles and they are willing to accept small accommodations from the other. Successful couples accept 25% compromise as an effort made from the heart rather than demand 100% change. Even with compromise, people tend to go back to their set points unless diligent about change.

If you find that small accommodations are not sufficient, then you may be facing a bottom line deal breaker in your relationship. A helpful book in this regard is Too Good To Leave, Too Bad To Stay by Mira Kirshenbaum.

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