Take the relationship test to enable you to answer the following questions

Should you stay? Should you commit? It depends on what you expect to change.

Long-term partners often tell me that the biggest lesson they’ve learned is that “you can’t change anyone” or that “people don’t change.” Still, listening to them talk, I hear them trying to change each other.

It makes me wonder how they define change. Sure, you can’t change partners the way you change your computer’s operating system. You don’t have that kind of control. But nudging them to exhibit a bit more of one trait or a bit less of another is inevitable in intimate relationships.

We are neither omnipotent nor impotent to change each other. We’re some-nipotent. We have some power, and we try to guess where we have it and where best to exercise it.

Mostly we try to change a partner when we think they have the ability to change and should change but just aren’t making enough effort. When we think they can and should change but won’t we often take it personally as though, apparently, our partner doesn’t love us enough to try to accommodate us. They might profess their love but without that effort we begin to suspect that their professed love is just lip service.

I’ve long been interested in the relationship between can’t, won’t and shouldn’t. I find the serenity prayer a useful framework for thinking about them because it captures two of these explicitly (won’t and can’t) and the third implicitly (shouldn’t).

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. – Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

Think about the serenity prayer applied to something to change about yourself:

Will/Won’t: The courage to change something is the will, which is the opposite of the won’t—the serenity to accept.

Can/Can’t: The things I can change/The things I can’t change.

Should/Shouldn’t (Need/Needn’t):  Changing things I can change really means improve things I can improve. Things worth improving are things you should change which is the opposite of shouldn’t. After all, there are lots of things of no consequence you could change which therefore shouldn’t or needn’t be changed.

The serenity prayer has a reflexive quality, much like your reflexive muscles—your triceps and biceps, for example. Contract one and the other loosens.

For example, when you have the courage to try to change your partner, you reflexively have the serenity to accept your standards and expectations as unchangeable. You say, “I have the serenity to accept my standards so I’m going to have the courage to try to change you to meet them.”

Conversely, when you accept your partner as unchangeable, you need the courage to change your standards. You say, “I have the serenity to accept you as you are, which means mustering the courage (will) to try to change my standards.”

Here’s a quick, informal test you might take if you’re wondering about your partnership, whether to commit to it; whether to stay in it. It’s a way to inventory your can’ts, won’ts and shouldn’ts. You could score it if you like, assigning points to each item on it, but your impressions of your inventory should provide sufficient intuitive guidance without counting.

The Relationship Test:

Name three traits in each of these categories:

Top things that bug you about your partner that you think your partner:

Should and would change, but can’t change.

Should and could change but isn’t willing to change and therefore won’t change.

Could and would change but needn’t or shouldn’t have to change.

Top things that bug your partner about you that he or she thinks you:

Should and would change but can’t change.

Should and could change but isn’t willing to change and therefore won’t change.

Could and would change but needn’t or shouldn’t have to change.

If it won’t cause too much trouble, ask your partner to answer the same questions and  share your answers. If you think it will cause too much trouble, try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and answer on their behalf about you as a partner.

Or you can do both, answering on behalf of each other and comparing notes with their answers the way they did on the Newlywed Game, two partners guessing what the other will answer.

However you reflect on the answers, my guess is that it will give you a way to get beyond the over-simplistic “you can’t change anyone.” You’ll gain subtler wisdom to know the difference between what can and can’t change.

Author’s Book

© Copyright 2015 Jeremy E. Sherman, Ph.D., All rights Reserved.
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Vital stats: Berkeley, 57, partnered, three children (M34, M28, F24), married once for 17 years. Educationally: Ph.D. in evolutionary theory, masters in public policy Vocationally: MBA professor of strategic foresight, business consultant and communications trainer, academic researcher. Historically: I've taught over 250k college-student/hours in psychology, sociology, rhetoric, philosophy, advertising, economics, history, English, cultural studies, marketing and strategy. I founded a non-profit environmental lobbying organization in DC, worked as a business consultant and public affairs director for large companies, ran a foundation, designed and implemented water projects in Guatemala. For seven years I lived on the world's largest hippie commune, and was an elected elder there at 24. Authority: None. I never refer to myself as an expert in anything, but rather a specialist in those questions that interest me (see below). I write with no authority. I read lots but cite rarely in my articles which should be read as opinion pieces, not declaration of scientifically proven fact. I will not pull rank on readers: My ideas are only worth considering only if they're based on good reasoning. I change my ideas over time. Caveat emptor. They say "don't believe everything you think. I'll go one further: I don't believe everything I write, in that for every argument I make, I aim to be able to express convincingly the counterargument. I try to live by the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Self-expressively: I've written over 600 articles for Psychology Today, coined over 400 psychology neologisms. I write songs and limericks. I play bass and sing in jazz, Latin, funk, and Nigerian groups three nights a week. Intellectually, yet intimately, my middle-age spread spans several life-sized questions. * Most cosmically, how did mattering emerge from matter?, life from non-life? mind from chemistry? economics from physics? information from energy, questions I address as a member of a 16 year research project with UC Berkeley scientist Terrence Deacon. * More practically, though not unrelated, how do and how should we shop among interpretations, deciding what's significant and how to respond to what life deals us? * Also practically and related, what is a butthead other than someone we butt heads with? since in a free society we should define morals negatively--not what you should, but what you shouldn't do. We say "don't be a butthead," but define buttheads subjectively as people we butt heads with. I seek a more objective distinction between what's morally in and out of bounds. * How do and should we balance the ambigamist's tensions and what is the underlying structure of such tensions? For this I use the Serenity Prayer as a template, and think about levels of analysis (going meta). I've written five books, only one published but the rest out soon one way or another. Negotiate with yourself and win: Doubt management for people who can hear themselves think. Purpose: A natural history Doubt: A user's guide; a natural history Mind readers dictionary: Terms for reading between the lines with greater comprehension. Executive UFO: A field guide to unidentified flying objectives in the workplace.