Can People Really Change? A Couples’ Therapist Debunks A Big Relationship Myth

Image by Rob and Julia Campbell / Stocksy

Couples often ask me, “Can people really change?” This is interesting since these same people do believe in learning, which, if you think about it, is another word for the kinds of changes couples are wondering about.

Three things cause us to doubt our ability to change: old ideas about the brain, narrow ideas about who we really are, and not understanding enough about how we can create change.

Why we believe the myth that people can’t change:

1. Old brain/new brain

The belief that growth, learning, and change happen only in children is still hanging around and influences our expectations of what is possible. Often what we mean when we say that people don’t change is that we do not expect people to continue growing and learning past a certain age.

One of the most important facts we have from the neuroscience of the past decades is that our brains are constantly being reshaped by experience, right into our seventh and eighth decades of life. As Louis Cozolino, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, says, “The brain is the organ whose mission is to constantly change itself.” In 1992 Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison proposed the term neuroplasticity to describe this vast ability of our brains to change

This expectation that we stop learning and changing is both wrong and a recipe for unhappiness. George Vaillant, in his famous 60-year study of adult development, found that happiness and health in adults were correlated with learning and growth.ADVERTISEMENT

2. Narrow ideas of who we are

How often have you labeled someone, yourself included, with a particular characteristic? “He’s so kind,” or “I’m just not spontaneous,” or “She’s very controlling.”

In fact, we all have a myriad of ways of being. Who we “are”—our identity—depends on many factors, including tendencies we were born with, the various situations we find ourselves in, and on deliberate choices we make to develop certain qualities. 

Part of the power of love and commitment is how these relationships bring out the best in us and provide the extra motivation we need to transcend our struggles with selfishness and sloth. We often learn to do things that are hard because someone we love needs us to.

3. Not understanding how we change

Couples are often pessimistic about change when they have been trying, sometimes for a long time, to make changes and have not succeeded. They often arrive at my door very discouraged.

As with anything in life, succeeding depends on trying with the right methods. No matter how many times you try to shoe a horse using an egg, you will never succeed. Furthermore, concluding that the lack of success means that there is something wrong with either the egg or the horse would be a serious misinterpretation of the results of the experiment.

The 3 ingredients for positive change.

Rather than asking if people can change, a better question is: Under what conditions do people change?

An understanding of the change process, coupled with practicing a few simple skills, can greatly improve your success at creating changes you want. For starters, here are three powers for positive change:

1. The power of an inspiring vision

Many people hold inside of themselves a heartfelt longing for an ideal relationship with a life partner. For many of us, it is one of our most precious dreams. 

In my work with couples, I often hear the story of giving up on the dream. They have encountered the difficulties of being in a relationship and the noticeable gap between what they are experiencing and what they had hoped for. They look around at others’ relationships. (How many people do you know that have the relationship you would most like to have?) They give up on their dreams and try to be “realistic.”

But without the inspiration of the vision, the hard work of a relationship is too hard to sustain without exhaustion and resentment. You simply can do it by aiming for something merely acceptable, something far less than what you really want. In order to do all of the hard work and hanging in there, we need more than perspiration. We need inspiration.

2. Change, acceptance, and learning

The relationship you want is not something you acquire by choosing the right partner, scheduling a caterer, or putting a ring on your beloved’s finger. The secret to a great relationship is to simultaneously hold the inspiration of the vision, compassionate acceptance of your current difficulties, and a commitment to learning together.

One of the most powerful things couples can do is to participate well in each other’s changes, to become learning partners.

3. The power of decisions and commitment

The role of decisions in relationship improvement is often overlooked. The first step is deciding. Or as Peter Block, a consultant to organizations, titled his book about taking action on things that matter, The Answer to How Is Yes. 

With a decision and commitment to change, we engage in a kind of dialogue with life where we assume that there is a way forward. We find new paths that we did not know about, and could not know about, prior to deciding.

Commitment means we close the option of turning around, giving up. The big commitment to a person and a relationship becomes a series of smaller decisions we will make to learn and grow together.

So, can people change? Yes. 


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