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Coupling

You, Only Different

Why do girlfriends and wives keep trying to change their men?

By Marianne Jacobbi
March 15, 2009
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I'm on a date with a man, and it's going pretty well -- until I discover that his politics are so far right of mine that he couldn't possibly be right for me. My first thought: This might have James Carville-Mary Matalin possibilities. Their improbable marriage is still going strong after 15-plus years. My second thought: I'm not likely to change. Is he?

In the movies, love changes people for the good all the time. After Henry Higgins gave his pupil Eliza Doolittle an extreme makeover, she morphed into a fair lady and they fell in love. Imagine how it might have played out had there been a sequel, My Fair Gentleman. Girlfriends and wives expend lots of energy trying to change their man, even though they won't always admit it and despite the fact that in real life, changing a man rarely works out. My aunt spent much of her marriage trying to get my uncle to quit gambling, until their divorce, after which he took up with a woman who's OK with how much time he spends at the blackjack table. A young friend recently married a man whose fear of commitment kept things stalled for seven long years. Will it last? I'm not sure, and I'm waiting for future installments. My own marriage was an "opposites attract" kind of love story and it endured for decades, until our differences finally did us in. We each slipped back to who we were.

Shirley Bavonese, a psychotherapist and co-director of the Relationship Institute in Michigan, says the most frequent complaint men have about women is that we're always trying to change them (with criticism, bossiness, and nagging). The most frequent complaint women have about men? They don't listen. I know there's this notion that women are bent on changing men because we're impossible to please, never content with what we've got. (Haven't you heard the Husband Store joke?) But I don't think that's right. We work on changing our man because we expect a lot from a relationship. We challenge him to talk about his feelings because we want to grow closer as a couple. We keep on him to drink less, exercise more, make a friend not because we're control freaks but because we want him to be around for a long time to come.

Change becomes harder the older you get, which makes changing and dating in middle age a real test. Let's just say I'm a good deal older than Eliza Doolittle. By now, I know what I'm capable of changing within myself and in another person and what I'm not willing or able to give up. So a new love interest knows all the sports statistics but can't seem to remember my birthday. Is this behavior likely to change? Could I grow to love it? Or at least live with it? In the old days, I'd overlook such shortfalls or assume he'd change -- for the better, for me. I no longer assume. Now, if I find myself wanting to change big and small things about someone I'm seeing -- if the change urge runs deep -- then the relationship isn't working.

I'm lucky enough to have many friends who have been married for decades, and I'm taking lessons from them about love and change and what's possible. From what I can tell, these couples let go of trying to change each other ages ago, and that may be the secret to their success. The little things that once rankled -- his tendency to be long-winded, hers to fall asleep at the movies -- no longer seem to be sources of irritation. They're little nuisances, endearing even, depending on the mood. I sometimes return home from dates and phone my friends for perspective. They've helped me see that you can't be and shouldn't be with someone you feel needs changing. Or who wants to change you. They remind me that you can change what someone does, but not who he is, and that when you've found the right person, you'll change each other without even knowing it.

That new guy seated across from me, I'm wishing he were different and it's not looking promising. My heart is telling me what to do, and this time, I listen. After coffee and dessert, I thank him for a very nice evening and move on.

Marianne Jacobbi is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. She lives in Cambridge. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.

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