By coincidence to my last blog “Take Me the Way I Am”, I got a phone call from a relative (I’ll call this relative Jill), complaining about her spouse (who I’ll call Jack). Jill just can’t take the way Jack is any more. Jack has always been that way. Almost certainly Jack always will be pretty much that way, with perhaps some minor peripheral improvement. Jack has a significant flaw (don’t we all). Jill wanted to hope she could somehow reason with Jack to get him to change. I made it clear to Jill that Jack’s flaw is in fact a mental illness, which Jill cannot hope to change by reasoning with Jack. By definition, Jack’s problem is irrational and unreasonable. They have been married for many years. It’s nothing new. It has always driven Jill crazy (and quite rightly and understandably so).
Jill, of course, has her own “issues,” and she is aware of that. Jill says Jack once admitted that when they married, Jack thought he could change Jill. Jill bitterly resents that. She wants to be taken the way she is. She knows she has problems, but she resents anyone else telling her she needs to change. She, on the other hand, cannot take Jack the way he is. She has decided, for what must be the 300th time, that she just can’t take his problem any more. I can sympathize. I couldn't either.
So, what are the options.
Main principal of life: You can’t change anyone but yourself.
Corollary: You probably can’t much change yourself either.
If you decide you just can’t take the other person’s flaws any more, refer to Main principal.
People are who they are. Personality transplants have yet to be perfected. Therapists seem to have some degree of success in helping people make small improvements. I’m not entirely sure how much they can accomplish. I’ve tried it myself – quite a bit of it actually. I’m still not sure how much it accomplishes. Perhaps, some people’s personalities are more malleable than other’s. Perhaps, some people are right on the cusp and a little nudge in the right direction can make a big difference. I think the main thing I have learned from psychologists is about ways to learn acceptance of others; ways to adapt to the flaws of others; how to deal more cheerfully with what I cannot change.
While you may have some slight hope of changing yourself, trying to change someone else is pretty much futile. They are who they are: Deal with it. Except that, “dealing with it” implies changing yourself, which is really, really hard to do. Learning to accept the (currently) unacceptable means changing what you can and cannot accept, which is not something anyone wants to do. Change is hard enough when you really want to change: when you are seeking to acquire a virtue or an appealing or admirable quality, which seems really desirable and worth great effort to achieve. But, when change means accepting something undesirable, it is by definition something you don’t want to do. And if you don’t want to change, you almost certainly aren’t going to.
So, what are Jill’s options?
1) Accept the unacceptable. Change herself to learn tolerance or to somehow draw boundaries.
2) Take the option Jill has pursued for the last several decades, which is beating her head against the wall, trying to make Jack change, in the futile hope that the wall will yield instead of her head. All she gets is a headache.
3) Leave. She’s tried that too. It has pros and cons. It could be viewed as the only solution, or it could be viewed as deciding there is no solution. Trouble is, where ya gonna go? Spouses can’t be traded in for a better model. They usually get traded in for worse ones. Singlehood has definite downsides.
You might well ask, where is Jack in all this? Does Jack realize he has a problem? Has Jack tried to change? Yes, Jack knows he has a problem. Yes Jack has tried to change. He’s spent decades trying in various ways, including therapy. Jack has decided that having tried futilely to change for decades, that he can’t. He is the way he is. Take him the way he is, because he’s tried to change and he has decided that it just ain’t gonna happen. He has pretty much given up trying to change.
It is not clear just how Jack sees his problem – whether he sees himself as having a serious and debilitating mental illness, as just a little eccentric, or perhaps that his “problem” is only a problem because Jill and others think it is. His view is probably a mixture of all of those, and probably varies from time to time. I can tell you that he longs to be taken as he is, warts and all. He would prefer to view his issue as a virtue rather than as a vice. While he sees the downsides to his problem, he also finds a certain degree of happiness in it. It is how he wishes he could be left alone to live. Call his problem eccentricity. Call it idiosyncrasy. Call it idiocy. Call it insanity, neurosis, psychosis, whatever. He is what he is; what he has always been; what he always will be. Take him as he is, or don’t take him at all, those are the choices.
So, Jack and Jill have both fallen down and broken their crowns trying to change themselves and each other. Take them the way they are. Or leave them. When it comes to trying to change another person, failure is not merely an option, it is pretty much inevitable. That's not meant to seem defeatest or depressing. It's about learning what can and cannot be changed and learning how to deal most happily with what cannot be changed. Happiness is not about the external situations, but about how we deal with those situations.
I can tell you one thing, though: It’s a heck of a lot easier to accept people the way they are if you don’t have to live with them.