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Can Your Partner Really Change?

The only guarantee in a relationship is that the person we're with today might be the same person down the road, with the same attitudes and behaviors.
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In an earlier article, Letting Go Of What You Can't Control, we looked at becoming unstuck after a relationship ends by letting go of what we can't control. This idea arises within long-term and new relationships, too. If we're unhappy in a long-term relationship or just back on the dating scene and ignoring red flags about someone, we might be making what is arguably the mother mistake in relationships: Loving or falling in love with someone's potential, rather than who he or she is.

In every relationship there are things that bother us about the other person. Problems tend to arise when we ignore these things, hold onto hope that eventually they will disappear or change, or believe that we can find a way to force them out.

That isn't to say that we can't have faith in our partner's ability to work with us on resolving relationship issues, that people never change, or that we must reject someone who we deem imperfect. If we and our significant other are both willing to work on the things we want the other to change, it's appropriate to have faith. If we realize that it's unrealistic to expect our significant other to change, it's possible to accept that and learn to navigate the relationship as it is.

The problem sneaks in when we're unable to accept that he or she isn't likely to change and we continue to believe that if we just communicate, nag or wait it out, our significant other will eventually become what we want him or her to be.

It's a risky bet to place our chips on what a relationship could be rather than what it is, especially if we're thinking about taking it to the next level by moving in or getting married. It's tempting to believe that her lack of interest in your career will change if you're living together and seeing each other after work every day, or that his five-day-a-week habit of wobbling home after five o'clock cocktails with colleagues will change if you get married. If you've already tended to what you can control (letting the other person know your feelings and needs) and your significant other is still repeating those behaviors that bother you, the question is this: Can I genuinely accept this behavior and be okay with it?

Plenty of people go the genuine acceptance route; none of us is perfect, after all. Maybe you wish your significant other were more outgoing in social situations but rather than bug him to talk more when you're out in groups, you accept that that's just how he is. Perhaps your significant other isn't as affectionate as you wish but rather than bug her about it again and again, you accept that it's not in her nature. The challenge is being sure that your acceptance is genuine, and that you can honestly learn to live with those things and not resent them.

For those of us on the dating scene, the risk of falling into the fantasy trap can be especially high. For starters, initial attraction creates drug-like chemical reactions in the brain. Feeling high in this way can distract us from red flags. In addition, we're more likely to let things slide at the beginning, because it can be appropriate to take the wait-and-see approach when learning about another person's behavior. Problems arise when the red flags are crimson and waving inches from our face, yet we continue to ignore them. We magnify what we like about the person and believe that if we just give it time, the negative will disappear and the positive will prevail.

If we find ourselves in the above predicament, with those crimson flags waving away, a good question to ask ourselves is this: If the relationship continues and this behavior remains present, is it something I can genuinely accept and live with? If the answer is yes, forge ahead. If it's no, think carefully about whether you want to become more entrenched.

The bottom line is that a relationship in which potential is more valuable than reality is a precarious thing, because potential is never guaranteed. The only guarantee is that the person we're with today might be the same person months or years from now, with the same attitudes and behaviors. That leaves us with this question, which requires an honest answer: Do I love who this person is, or do I love what he or she could become?

Mary Darling Montero, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Santa Monica, CA. She specializes in relationships, life transitions, trauma, depression and anxiety, and is certified to practice EMDR for trauma resolution. She is a contributing therapy expert for BounceBack.

BounceBack helps people find happiness after heartbreak from a relationship breakup or divorce. It's a place to tell your story, get community support and advice from experts. Heartbreaks happen to everyone. And everyone has the potential to bounce back and move forward to a life full of strength, confidence, and happiness.