You Cannot Change People – And That Isn’t A Bad Thing

We as a society 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 more or less perfect, 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 all sorts of unpleasant behaviour because “we can change him”, because he’s really a good guy “deep down”.

But here’s the thing that I think everyone should hear, whether they be men, women, flawed, or somehow, impossibly perfect: you 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 you. Because you 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 you, then it won’t matter. You can have the best intentions, the best advice, the most confidence that they can be a better person, but you 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 that we intend to be on.

Because 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 behaviour, 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 behaviour and stick by them, even when we have no other reason to. Even when their behaviour harms 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, all in the hope that they might eventually stop.

If someone in our lives is flawed, self-destructive, or outwardly toxic, then we really 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 doesn’t serve us and only hurts us in the long run. There is no shame in either option. There is nothing wrong with you if you leave, because there was nothing you could have done that would have fixed them. Their flaws are not your responsibility. And there is nothing wrong with you if you stay, so long as you 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.

Your salvation does not lie in another person. You do not need a hero; you can be your own. And, no, that isn’t as easy as it sounds: you need to want it. You need to be able to recognize that what you are doing does not serve you or the people around you. You need to know that you deserve better. You need to put in effort and you need to pick yourself up after bad days and you need to forgive yourself when you inevitably fail, and you can do it. It is possible, but there is a reason why very few people succeed. You need to be strong. You need to be a warrior.

And you cannot do any of this if you put all of the work required for your 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, sure – 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.

 

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Romantic Love is Not The Most Important Love

We as a society are positively in love with love.

We have love stories. We have rom-coms and romances and Harlequins and YA-novel love triangles. We have countless songs telling us that “all you need is love” and “I was made for loving you, baby“. We maintain Pinterest boards, planning out our dream wedding for that day when we finally find the right person. We have this idea in our society that we are not complete human beings, that we need someone else to complete us, to make us whole. And once we find that other half, then everything will come together and we’ll live happily ever after.

Our obsession with love is an oddly limited sort of obsession. We do not care all that much for a very sort of love felt toward all man-kind; some find that admirable, sure, but if the amount of violent video games and movies where the heroes preach shooting first and asking questions later is any indication, then this sort of love is too often forgotten about. We do not show the same level of obsession toward platonic love between friends or siblings or family members; we like it sometimes, sure, but it isn’t quite represented as the same.

No, our specific breed of obsession is toward romantic love.

And this can be somewhat alienating to people who have no interest in romantic or sexual love, people who identify as asexual or aromantic. But even if you do not identify with either terms, this obsession can be somewhat harmful.

This obsession might make you feel like you need to be in a relationship, no matter who it’s with. Because you find your value by attaching yourself to another person, any person, and it’s better to settle than be alone.

Except it isn’t.

This obsession might lead you toward feelings of depression and loneliness when you’re single, feelings of being not good enough, of being unloveable, just because you aren’t currently involved with someone.

But that isn’t true.

This obsession might force you to make sacrifices that you wouldn’t otherwise make, because you’ve been told by everyone and everything – by your friends, your family, your movies, your magazines, your songs, your self-help book – that love is the most important thing in this world, and nothing else can possibly compare.

But there are more important things.

Like, say, your happiness.

I won’t deny that romantic love can be very fulfilling, as well as a great source of happiness. But, despite our society’s obsession with it, it isn’t really the most important type of love out there.

After all, self-love is more important.

It is more important for you to find completeness within yourself than within another person. It is more important for you to value yourself than your relationship.

Because, end of day, people leave. Circumstances change. The world turns, and things don’t always turn out for the best, but ideally speaking, you should always be able to depend on yourself.

Self-love is what will make you realize that you deserve better than to settle for a relationship that doesn’t make you happy.

Self-love is what will make you realize that your comfort matters, that your dreams and desires and wishes, they matter just as much as anyone else’s.

Self-love is what will make you realize that, even if you aren’t in a relationship right now, that doesn’t mean that you are unloveable.

So maybe all we need is love, but it isn’t always romantic love. Sometimes, the only sort of love we really need is to look at the mirror and to realize that the person looking back at us is strong, capable, resilient, and worthwhile. That that person is loveable, even if, right now, that love doesn’t come in the form of a lover.