Change I'm Not Sure I Believe In
December 24, 2009 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Where is the line between asking someone to comprise for the sake of the relationship, and asking someone to change who they are?

There are things about my significant other that bother me, but I have a hard time talking to him about them, not because I think he'll be upset with me but because I feel uncomfortable asking him to change himself for me. He pretty much never asks me to change. This may be due to an imbalance in our relationship, in that I love him and care about him and am attracted to him but have never been "infatuated" (with him or with anyone else) and he has been pretty smitten with me from the beginning. But I worry that I'm using his feelings for me in order to change him, and I don't want to do that. On the other hand, I don't want to suffer through things that could be better or break up with him when he would prefer to make the change (that is, I don't want to decide what is too much to ask of him - that's for him to decide).

Some examples of the kind of thing I'm talking about: he has a tendency to respond to my distress by talking about a similar way that he's been distressed in the past (I'm sure to show that he empathizes, but to me it feels like he's asking me to comfort him instead of comforting me); we both have silly/goofy streaks but sometimes I wish he would be more serious/confident/adult - or, god help me, "manly"; and he has some habits of speech (some sort of cross between Whedon and lolcat) that I've always thought were kind of dumb, but are slowly starting to drive me crazy.

I'm sure there are things I do that will grate on him eventually (although right now he insists there is nothing he would change about me) but for now it's not a two way street so I can't measure how much I can ask him to compromise with how much *I* am willing to compromise. And I've never been in a relationship this long/serious before so I can't compare it to past experience either.

One of the awesome things about our relationship is how open and honest we can be with each other, so I'm not necessarily worried about having these kinds of conversations with him, so long as I know I'm being reasonable. The question is, am I being reasonable? Is it okay if I ask him to try and change these things? What kind of things are not okay to ask him to change? What kind of changes have you asked a partner to make for you? What kind of requests would be too much to ask of you?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think you should not mention something at all for fear of asking him to change for you. It'll just build up in you, and you'll either blow up at him about it or end up leaving him for things that could have been resolved.

It's also easier to judge how you should proceed with things after you've discussed it. Is it something he's unwilling to change, or something he tries to change but reverts to eventually? Does he do it with everyone else as well? If so, that may just be a part of his personality that you can either deal with, or break up over.

How is everything else in the relationship? Are you generally happy with him? No matter who you're with, there's always going to be one or two things about them you don't particularly like. The question is if you like the rest of them enough to deal with those things.

Asking him to change for you would be pressuring him to go vegetarian, get a better job, stop talking to his best friend because you don't like him, etc.

My example of this is my SO's lack of communication. He'll go a week without calling/texting/skyping/whatever, and at first I thought he must not really be that into me. I talked to him about it, he was great about it for a few weeks, then started doing the same thing again. Turns out he does that with his family too, so it's not just me.

I can either choose to accept that, or leave him and find a guy that's better in that area. For me, I'm happy with everything else so I just ignore it.
posted by biochemist at 2:42 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

One very helpful strategy is to state your concerns in what they call "'I' statements."

"I find the lolcat stuff tiresome."
"I sometimes wish you could make decisions more quickly."
"I don't like it when you always try to relate my issues to something that's happened to you; I would feel more comforted if you'd just let me vent without trying to solve my problems."

This is Couples Therapy 101. Conversations that are "You should..." or "You shouldn't..." are likely to go wrong, and it's generally better for each party to reframe issues in terms of what bugs them.

And, to be honest, all of that stuff (especially the last) would probably make him better at being most people's boyfriend, not just yours. My father does the "Oh, I'm so sorry you have a cold. When I had a cold..." thing and it has driven me absolutely nuts for 40 years--I could not tolerate it in a partner.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:56 PM on December 24, 2009

To be honest, the things you've mentioned seem rather small and petty, and personally I don't think they're worth mentioning.

However, if you feel you must, I don't really thing they're big enough to warrant your fears in taking advantage of his feelings. If you must bring them up with him, just say them offhandedly and casually - they really don't warrant a serious sitdown talk.
posted by ryanbryan at 2:57 PM on December 24, 2009

It seems to me like the examples you've mentioned fall into two different classes.

The first class has to do with how he's interacting with you. How he reacts to you when you're in distress falls into this class. This stuff is important, but it's also very malleable: he doesn't have a whole lifetime behind him of how-to-interact-with-you. He's still learning. Figure out what you want him to do, and tell him that. In positive terms -- focus what you would like him to do, rather than what you would like for him not to do. When he does something in a way that works for you, tell him that. He'll learn, over time, how you like to be responded to. This is not asking him to change who he is: it is asking him to learn who you are.

The second class of issues have to do with who he is, his sense of humor, his manliness (or lack thereof.) If these things are bothering you, I'd worry that you're not all that happy with this guy. Everybody does things sometimes that get on our nerves, and your SO will be no exception. But if you find yourself focusing on those things, not able to look past them to the stuff that you do like, it may be a symptom of your not feeling 100% into the relationship. In any case: his personality won't change. Or at least not in any direction you can predict or control.
posted by wyzewoman at 3:33 PM on December 24, 2009 [12 favorites]

*although right now he insists there is nothing he would change about me*

Do you know this to be a fact? Is this a question you asked him? Because it is an obvious lie...of course there are things he would love to change about you, but he's either too smitten to care about those things, too mature to make it an issue in an otherwise satisfying relationship, or too afraid to bring it up for fear of pettiness. Frankly, it sounds like a "serious " and "adult" way of acting in a relationship.

The empathy part, however, could be easily handled as others before me have suggested; this is a typical male way of empathizing...wrong, no...but not what you need.

The other stuff is petty. Just think of all the stuff that is unique to you that drove past boyfriends and your parents crazy and be thrilled he loves you anyway. ;)
posted by teg4rvn at 3:37 PM on December 24, 2009

To reiterate: use "I" statements to discuss any of this with him.

You aren't really asking for him to consider changing any fundamental elements of himself. You're just asking him to consider your reactions when he's engaged in activity with you.

I love the hell out of a template I was taught as a youth group leader: "When you said/say [fill-in-the-blank] it makes me feel [fill-in-the-blank with "I" statements]. In the future, I would appreciate it if you would consider [doing this]."

To use this template with an example: "Honey, when you said you knew just how I felt when this terrible thing happened because it happened to you, it didn't make me feel better. I have a different way of coping with these events from what you seem to use well for yourself. In the future, I would appreciate it if you would consider just giving me a hug instead of talking at that time, and I would probably welcome discussing your own experiences with the same terrible things when I've cooled down and am ready."
posted by nursegracer at 3:50 PM on December 24, 2009 [17 favorites]

I like nursegracers' advice. (Sidhidevil's i-statements sound really terse to me). But if you have this discussion and he sincerely listens and you collaborate and compromise and there's a trial period and it still doesn't feel right, then I think we're talking about the Price of Admission a la Dan Savage:

Your voice sounds pretty clinical and blah about this relationship. It sucks (in retrospect) to be the guy who's super smitten while the other player is just along for the ride. (In the moment you're super smitten so you don't notice that the other person is indifferent.) If you're not crazy enthusiastic about paying the price of admission, then you have to think whether or not it's because you're not an enthusiastic person at all or because you have yet to be in a relationship where you're the super smitten one. That is all a lot of words to say, you shouldn't ask anyone else to change in any relationship without taking ownership of your own piece of the change and self-evaluating where you can also improve. I feel like that's the true purpose of a well-utilized I-statement, taking responsibility for your own piece of the disconnect, even when fault feels one-sided, because if we're working on this problem as a team, then we have a lot better chance of doing it well than if it's all on one person.
posted by Skwirl at 4:58 PM on December 24, 2009 [7 favorites]

Tell him. Even the small stuff which this is. I totally understand the fine line and reluctance to cross it. Not coming up to the line has cost me in my relationships. The internal resentment that will build up will be much worse than the actual action that bothers you If he wants to change he will. If he doesn't, he might not tell you, but he won't.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:59 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Definitely follow nursegracer's template for better success! My Largely Mythological Husband and I have been married for 10 years, so we can afford to be brusque with each other at this point--nursegracer's template is much more workable.

The key thing, though, is to talk about your feelings, not to appeal to some abstract idea of what he "should" be doing.

Even the small stuff which this is.

The lolcat business is small stuff. The not being able to provide a listening ear or comfort without relating the partner's problems back to himself is more significant--hopefully it's just a bad habit, but it's a bad habit.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:25 PM on December 24, 2009

I had a problem with voicing some of my ticks and wishes in my first serious relationship too. I guess I was paranoid of nagging (my family has a long tradition of henpecking that I managed to avoid a little too well), and I'm rather non-confrontational in most interactions with most humans. I let go of small annoyances pretty easily in my acquaintanceships and strong friendships. But turns out, that's really not the right approach in romantic relationships for me. And maybe not for you.

In my own experience, first I'd try to let things go that weren't actual offenses. Slowly it turned into me not saying anything for weeks when I had to pick up my other's slack regarding cleanliness or other matters that actually did matter. I just fell into the habit of maintaining an easygoing exterior (for arguably understandable reasons: an anxious and extremely defensive significant other, my own learned behavior of controlling my emotions), but that's not a healthy thing to fall into.

Since you said you weren't ever all that infatuated with him, have you considered the possibility that these minor annoyances are manifestations of a deeper suspicion of general incompatibility? (if that wordy sentence made sense). This isn't in any way a DTMFA suggestion, but this all sounds really familiar to me. For me, it was a matter of recognizing that it wasn't about the small annoyances, but coming from a place that was also deeply unsettled in ways that were a lot harder to articulate (and tougher to face).

But it could be different for you and it's definitely worth talking about with him. Sometimes it really is just about the LOLcat voice. (sorry to repeat the focus on that, it's just really cute imagining people annoying their loved ones with this).
posted by inkytea at 6:58 PM on December 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

I agree that you are talking about two different types of behavior. One is about how he relates to you and participates in your relationship. I think that is a healthy thing to discuss, give feedback on, and make adjustments accordingly. Similarly, things that impact you, but may seem small, (dirty dishes in the sink, not taking out the garbage, forgetting to pay the electric bill), are also issues that should be addressed because they directly impact you and how you live your life. They are about building a partnership and incorporating another person into your life.

The other things you mention, however, make me wonder if you've just hit that "I hate the way you chew" point in the relationship. In my experience, after being in an intimate (and not necessarily romantic) situation with someone for a while, habits that differ from yours, even if there is nothing wrong with them, can become things that grate. This is the whole "do you have to breathe so loud/why do walk like that/stop being so you" type of reaction, and ultimately, do not point to legitimate complaints. Usually, this is a temporary thing that indicates maybe you need a little time to yourself or you had a particularly bad day or there is a larger issue (not necessarily involving him or your relationship) that you need to address, but in truth, there is nothing wrong with the slang he uses (even if it makes you cringe) or the way someone breathes/chews/walks/is.

To put it in a different context, think of things your parents do that embarrass or annoy you. When you've had some time apart, you may not notice them at all or they may even seem endearing, but with relentless exposure they can become the most irritating things ever. Your focus will shift and your annoyance will eventually pass, and mentioning them won't actually improve anything. Actually, it could possibly have a negative impact on your relationship as your partner becomes self-conscious or feels picked on, and isn't sure how to adjust. As much as your guy loves you, there are things that you do that under certain conditions will annoy the hell out of him. Trust. Most of the time, it won't be about you at all, but whatever is going on with him and his life, and not necessarily in relationship to you.

So, by all means, address things that impact you directly, but let the other things go. They are so small that taken individually, they don't even come under the umbrella of trying to change someone's personality. For example, you don't want him to stop being goofy/silly/dorky, you just don't want him to be goofy/silly/dorky in a particular way, such as using LOLcat speak. That's a really difficult thing to parse, and would be very difficult for your partner to negotiate. This just sounds like the growing pains of a serious relationship. So, try to just let these things go, and you will suddenly find yourself not caring about them anymore, at least for a while. It may wax and wane, as life and your relationship changes, but that is normal and only indicates a certain level of closeness. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 9:16 PM on December 24, 2009 [6 favorites]

My husband never criticizes or asks me to change either, and after I nearly destroyed our relationship by trying to return the favor (while inwardly seething with unexpressed resentment,) I finally learned that the success of our relationship requires me to be more assertive in asking for what I need (which gets surprisingly easier once you are to the point you are considering ending things.) Ultimately he was glad for the chance to make some changes rather than lose me.

It has been hard for me to not feel guilty about having unmet needs (being “high maintenance”) when he seems to be perfectly satisfied with the way I am, but on closer inspection I don’t think things are quite the way they seem at first glance. I know I have many flaws that he kindly does not call me out on, but I do have an innate (possibly skewed) sense of fair play which means that I naturally try to make sure I give as much as or more than I get. I am operating from the belief that if I am considerate, attentive and giving that my partner will naturally reciprocate; whereas my husband is the type of person who is good at getting the most important of his own needs met in a relationship and expects me to be the same. If he doesn’t want to do something he simply says “no”, guilt-free and drama-free; and he has also managed to communicate to me the things he needs and expects from me, and if I don’t do them he lets me know he’s unhappy about that, also guilt-free and drama-free.

I think I am just naturally more attentive to his moods and sensitive to his disapproval than he is to mine. If he makes an unhappy face or disappointed noise I feel like I have to fix whatever I am doing to cause it, whereas he doesn’t generally notice little clues that I’m seriously unhappy about something unless I clearly and firmly bring it to his attention. And sometimes I have to be willing to argue the point (or, god forbid, actually be willing to fight about it) in order for him to get that this is IMPORTANT, goddammit.

The point being, maybe the reason your boyfriend is so accepting is that he is already getting the important things he needs from you -- he has no NEED to complain or ask you to change. Whereas you, being a naturally considerate and fair person (the fact that you even asked the question attests to this) are not getting what you need because you are unconsciously expecting him to notice and make adjustments to his behavior without being asked, since he never has to ask you for what he wants.

I think you got good answers above about what behaviors of his you can reasonably request he change; I just wanted to make the points that a) you may be more justified in criticizing than you think you are and b) he may really need you to be clear, firm and persistent in order for him to really get that what you are asking for is crucially important for your happiness in this relationship.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:04 AM on December 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

Why not let him decide what is acceptable? You asking him to change doesn't mean that he automatically will. He might do to please himself, or he might do to please you, but either way, it's his choice.

Give him the option. Put it out there that you find [behaviour] annoying, and take it from there. He might completely hate the idea of changing that behaviour, but at least you've given him the option. Asking isn't the same as forcing, nor is it the same as emotional blackmail.

For what it's worth, I'm with you regarding this: asking someone to change doesn't sit right with me. But if I were in your boyfriend's position, I'd want to know if there was a problem.
posted by Solomon at 5:58 AM on December 25, 2009

Yeah, I think your examples fall in pretty different categories. For the first one, not only do I think it's reasonable to bring it up, I think you almost owe it to him to do so-- presumably he wants to console you and is trying to do so in the way he thinks is best, so if I were him, I would definitely want to know that it wasn't helping.

For the others, how are you currently handling it when he acts in ways that bother you? There's a lot of intermediate steps between "pretend you find it totally amusing and endearing" and "serious sit-down talk where you tell him you hate it and want him to change." I personally would try to make it clear-- in the subtlest way that gets the message across-- that it bugs me. (And, when he does something serious/confident/manly, that I like it.)

But to your question about the reasonableness of asking someone to change-- I think it's reasonable to make clear how you feel about the second two things you mention, but it's not really reasonable to actually ask him to change his behavior for your sake. You want to make sure he has accurate information about how you feel about how he acts, but from there it's totally his choice how or whether to use that knowledge and change his behavior.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 8:12 PM on December 25, 2009

EmilyClimbs: ...but it's not really reasonable to actually ask him to change his behavior for your sake.

I disagree with this assertion. It's unreasonable to ask someone to change their personality, but behavior is absolutely fair game. If it were unreasonable to ask someone to change their behavior, then guys could never be asked to put the toilet seat down. You can't demand changes in behavior, because you are not your partner's boss, but you can certainly request them.
posted by jon1270 at 5:44 AM on December 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Skwirl echoed my thoughts: "Your voice sounds pretty clinical and blah about this relationship."

Seeing as how these relatively petty things bother you to the point that you feel compelled to write AskMe, I'd say the conclusion is you're just not that into this fellow.

Granted it's okay (even preferable) that the man is more smitten in the relationship with the woman (given man's proclivity to step out more than the woman usually), there should still be a level of infatution, which you admittedly don't have for this person.

His empathizing is not the root of your issue.
posted by GeniPalm at 11:10 AM on December 26, 2009

It's unreasonable to ask someone to change their personality, but behavior is absolutely fair game. If it were unreasonable to ask someone to change their behavior, then guys could never be asked to put the toilet seat down.

I dunno-- I guess although "act less goofy and more serious" does refer to behaviors, I see it as pretty linked to personality and not really analogous to putting the toilet seat down. I guess I just personally wouldn't feel comfortable directly asking or being asked to change those sorts of behaviors, although I would definitely want to know how they made my partner feel. I think that when behaviors are pretty central to a person's personality (which would be a huge stretch for the toilet seat example) then it only seems appropriate to me to explicitly ask the person to change if it's something that's fundamentally about your relationship itself (like the way the boyfriend acts when the OP's distressed) and/or if it seriously bothers you rather than just being low-level irritating/frustrating. Otherwise, letting them know how you feel and letting them decide from there how they respond seems like a better choice.

But maybe some of this is an Ask vs Guess culture issue too? To me, if your partner knows you dislike something it's implied that you'd like them to change, and taking it a step further by explicitly asking them to change feels like it's over-stepping boundaries (a level of pressure uncomfortably close to ordering the other person around) because it makes it hard and awkward for them to say no. But maybe Ask culture people would rather hear "Honey, would you please stop acting so silly and take things seriously more often?" and are more comfortable responding with "I'll keep an eye on it for your sake, but honestly that's how I've always been and I like that about myself, so don't expect it to change too much."
posted by EmilyClimbs at 6:31 PM on December 26, 2009

To be honest, the things you've mentioned seem rather small and petty, and personally I don't think they're worth mentioning.

But I think because they're so small, he might have an easy time just not doing it. Honestly, if I was doing something like that I'd rather know because it wouldn't take much for me to stop and it'd make the other person not annoyed.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 9:30 PM on December 27, 2009

we both have silly/goofy streaks but sometimes I wish he would be more serious/confident/adult - or, god help me, "manly"

I do not think you are compatible with this person.
posted by desjardins at 11:43 AM on December 28, 2009

Talk to him about it. Not talking about these things is what ended my marriage.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:06 PM on December 28, 2009

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