Should I Try to Change My Partner? The Paradox in Couple Relationships

By Joel Ybarra, LCMFT

It is common for couples to wonder whether they should try to “change” one another. At times, partners are merely making simple requests of one another, such as asking for a hand with the groceries, but other times, it may seem like they’re asking their partner to change part of their personality. Couple relationships are a delicate balance between accepting our partners for who they are and seeking to get our own “needs” met. The best relationships are the ones in which there is unconditional acceptance, so where do our needs and desires (or even simple requests) come in? It’s tough to know when to do what: when to accept our partners as they are and when to ask for what we want. How do we balance these apparently contradictory ways of being in relationships?

The need for change arises in every relationship. Many couples start out believing the other person is perfect for them. Then, as happens with life, the couples realize their partners do not automatically meet their every need. Depending on their personalities and how they have organized themselves in relationships, one partner may appear more “needy” than the other. The needier partner may seem controlling or even demanding. The “not-so-needy” partner might take on a general attitude of “live and let live.” They don’t want to be demanded upon and don’t want to demand. They want to avoid the pressure these “expectations” place on the relationship. The other needier partner might ask, “What’s the use of the relationship if there is no getting needs met or even space to ask for what you want?”

The truth is both partners have a valid perspective. This is part of the difficulty in couple relationships: couples need to learn to hold the paradox of accepting their partner just as they are but also be willing to ask for what they want. If you accept your partner as they are but never ask for anything, there will be no connection in the relationship. In fact, the asking for and receiving of these requests is what makes up the connection in the relationship. On the other hand, if the relationship is made up of constant demands – the seeking and pursuing of needs, if “nothing is ever good enough” – the relationship will have too much pressure and conflict will arise. It is good for couples to just be able to relax in one another’s presence.

It is hard for us to do both of these things at once – accept our partners unconditionally and still ask for things. Our analyzing minds don’t accept paradox very well. We are used to putting things into either/or categories. One thing that helps us do this is trying to “hold our requests loosely.” Demanding can create opposition or even break a relationship. That is why it is better to talk about what you “want” or “wish for” in the relationship, rather than what you “need.” Doesn’t that sound so much nicer? “Holding our requests loosely” comes from being able to be secure within ourselves, but still wanting and seeing value in connection. This is why we work so much to create personal security for each partner in the relationship, but also on helping couples communicate needs and desires in an effective way.

With this approach, you can want and seek out your partner from a loving place rather than needing or demanding from them. The answer to the question of whether we should seek to change our partners is “yes and no.” First of all, it is better to think of “influencing” your partner rather than “changing” them. Then the trick is to be able to live in the paradox of unconditional acceptance and still move toward your partner for interdependency and connection. Thinking of holding our needs loosely helps us approach our partners in a way that breeds connection. None of us literally “needs” our partner for survival, but it would be untrue to say we don’t need them at all. Interdependency in relationships is vital to our health as human beings. It takes work to hold this paradox in mind and achieve a balanced and nurturing relationship, but it is worth the effort. Once you have found this balance, your relationship takes on an air of relative effortlessness where needs are being met and you are living in full acceptance of one another. That is something we are all seeking.

Read more about couples therapy at Real Life Counseling here.