Do You Feel Lucky?

(and feel free to comment! My older posts are certainly no less relevant to the burning concerns of the day.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Relationship Fallacies #3: Change For Me?

Everyone seems to complain that in a relationship, it's futile to expect a person to change for you. So it is. But no one seems to acknowledge the logical underpinnings of why it is futile. It's looked at as just a leopard/spots situation, not amenable to reason: the person just can't change, and you are foolish to expect otherwise. Often there's a wistful, implied undertone that if only the person were more open to reason, (to "being reasonable") then they could change their spots. People aren't leopards, after all, and hope springs eternal (et cetera...)!

But the fact is, it isn't lack of openness to reason that prevents such change. The more one attempts to apply reason to the problem, the more one is forced to admit that the request for change is itself unreasonable.

Now to be clear, I'm not speaking of changes to behaviors that are self-destructive, or that otherwise clearly violate the spirit of a committed, exclusive relationship. Such behaviors certainly would be vulnerable to a reasoned critique, and can be argued against on merit. Depending on the leopard involved, you might even succeed in making your case!

But if the request for change is not grounded strongly in some external, mutually agreed-upon-as-valid moral or ethical principle ("mutually agreed" = by both parties in the relationship), then the request for change falls flat, in terms of justification. Such requests boil down to: you should change your preference, because of my preference. Can such a request be substantiated? Let's set some terms.

Say Person A and Person B are in a love relationship, a committed and exclusive one. Let's say Person A wants Person B to change, in some way for which external moral or ethical justification is not available. Let's say Persons A and B have agreed that each others' feelings and wants matter.

Obviously, if they had agreed between them that what Person A wants is all that matters, than the requested change could not even be an issue: it goes, because what Person A says goes. But such is not generally the case. It is customary in love relationships for the dynamic of wants and needs to cut both ways. In such a relationship, how can Person A validate a claim that Person B should change, despite Person B's preference not to change? If we agree that what each person wants matters, and that what one person wants is not worth more than what the other person wants, than there seems to be no justification for Person A's preference to override Person B's preference.

Certainly the oft-heard plaint: "It's such a small thing, can't you do it for me?" makes little sense in this context. If it is indeed a small thing, then Person A can be expected to overlook it more readily than Person B can be expected to change it.

Person A is free to claim that their desire for Person B to change is greater than Person B's desire to remain unchanged, but this claim seems questionable on the face of it: what unit of measure is being employed?

The statement: "You would change this for me if you loved me," is likewise suspect. It appears at its core to be a very dubious sort of syllogism. Person A is reasoning that Either:

1. People who love me do whatever I say,
2. You love me,
3. You will do whatever I say!

Or, the implied threat of the negation:

1. People who love me do whatever I say,
2. You won't do whatever I say,
3. You don't love me.

In either case, the major premise ("1. People who love me do whatever I say,") seems very far from a healthy assertion to make, in the context of a relationship between equals.

In the final analysis, absent a successful appeal to some external agreed-upon and decisive principle, any call for change must be considered as based primarily on personal preference. Expecting the one you love to change based on your preference is an inherently unreasonable stance, rooted in an assumed imbalance in the relationship. On some level you are assuming that what you want is more important than what the other person wants. A call for the other person to exercise self-sacrifice rebounds instantly upon you with an implicit charge of hypocrisy: if self-sacrifice is required, why are you not the one being called upon to exercise it?

In the absence of meaningful quantifiers by which to gauge relative degrees of intensity of preference between one person and another, and in view of the general principle that neither person should expect their preference to outweigh the other person's preference, it does not seem possible for Person A to claim that it is more reasonable for Person B to change the behavior in question, than it is for Person A to overlook the behavior in question.

In closing, it is not the unreasonable refusal to change, but the unreasonable expectation of change that destroys harmony and undermines respect and cooperation in a relationship between equals. Once the basic truth of the above is acknowledged, and the unreasonable expectation of change based on an implicitly imbalanced hierarchy of desires is removed, it is usually possible for the two parties to proceed in a clear-eyed and reasonable fashion towards an amicable and mutually-satisfactory negotiated solution.


dogimo said...

Can anyone think of a better finish for that post? I wrote it, and even I feel gypped.

It just turns the whole thing into a joke.

dogimo said...

Update: I excised the last line. It was just dumb.

dogimo said...

I still think it's pretty fucking hilarious.

The tone throughout...!

blue said...

I'm not going to counter any of your specific points, but though they sound good for a logic class, that's not the way it is when you're in a relationship. Not when I'm in a relationship, anyway. Sometimes you just go with the other person's preference because you don't really care so much, you know they really want that, and you want them to be happy, as happy as you can make them. So you try sweetbreads or wear pigtails or do stupid activities you know they like even though you don't.

And that doesn't even count all the things you do behind the scenes for them, just because you love them so much you want to make them smile as much as is humanly possible, just so you can see it. You inconvenience yourself in all manner of ways, and you suck it up and try not to say too much about it or let on, because you want to see their face light up when they see you or see you do that thing.

Also, sometimes you want them to sort of gaga over you, and the "you wanted this" move is a nice one in achieving that. Is this the selfish reason more than the truly loving reason? It's kind of loving, too. I'd say it's fun for both parties, because the one gets to enjoy and the other gets to be enjoyed.

Hm. I sound like some dirty manual, but I mean something as simple as wearing a certain outfit.

If you can do something that makes them inexplicably happier day-to-day or something that makes them see you as the white knight/red hot goddess, that's something I'd usually rather do than quibble over. True, I believe you're talking about personal preferences, but a serious relationship is going to involve a lot of arbitrary personal preferences, from whether or not you should really wear those ridiculous snakeskin cowboy boots all the time to whether the spices should be in a rack or a drawer. There is compromise, there is reciprocity, there is respect for each other's desires as well as habits/preference. And not just in the cabinets and closets. In a relationship, you share so much with each other that you kind of share each other. It's fair to plead or petition for change if you just don't like something or would prefer it another way.

If the other person feels differently than you about that, or feels they should never have to do anything to please you or behave in ways you specifically desire, then you probably just aren't going to mesh well as people. It doesn't have so much to do with "if you loved me, you would" as much as "I love this certain thing, and I'm with you. You aren't naturally inclined to this certain thing, but since I dearly wish to be with you and not look for some random dude/chick so inclined, wouldn't it be great if you wanted to do this for me?"

And if you don't. go suck it. I'll look for someone who will. No, I'm kidding, of course. Unless it piles up. If someone only ever wants to do things his way, only ever wears what he wants, cooks the food he likes, buys the toothpaste he uses, the beer he drinks, plays his favorite music, etc., it's just no good. Especially if I'm busy waxing and plucking and learning his music's lyrics while stilting up on high heels or slouching to make him look taller and dyeing my hair and wearing uncomfortable jeans and sexy but complicated shirts that require poking-wire bras with many straps and adjustments.

Upon this edit, I find I am irked at the length of time I'm taking on this and start thinking if you are a boy, you should just do what the damn girl wants, because in almost every case, she's the one doing more to please the guy, whether or not he realizes it.

That said, I don't think it's quite fair to try to force someone to be vegan/eat meat or tell them all the music they listen to sucks and will not be tolerated. Ideologies and life passions aren't really facets of a person that change without some personal evolution, so that is a little ridiculous.

dogimo said...

BLUE!! Haven't seen you around here in a while! :-D

I don't disagree with any of that. I should clarify. To me, things you do together or things you may try on (like clothes) aren't really change, at least not how I mean it when I say: "asking someone to change." Those are just the somethings you do, not really the whats you are.

To some extent, yes, the somethings you really love (to do) can cross over into the whats you are: if a person loves their Sunday ritual (whatever it may be) and considers it a big part of their identity, that's something that I say the other person would be wrong to ask them to change. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Things like you're talking about - trying on a different style of clothing, or trying new activities, or trying to share in what the other person's into, give it a shot with an open mind - I agree there should be openness there, and some spirit of give-and-take! To me that's what everybody should be doing anyway.

Well, maybe not the clothes so much.

A person who is so closed to trying new things that they won't try anything the other person loves...that's about as bad as the person I'm talking about, who takes a look at the other one and says: I want you to change this about yourself, for no reason but because I want you to be this way.

Basically what I'm saying above is that in a relationship of equals, if one partner wants the other to change something about their self, that's a reasonable thing to ask about, but a completely unreasonable thing to expect or demand. Surely in matters of pure preference (i.e., not a heroin habit for instance) where preferences differ, the preference of the partner whose self it is not does not, can not reasonably "outrank" the preference of the partner whose self it is.

An obvious point, perhaps! But you'd be surprised how often it's not self-evident.

dogimo said...

To be frank, I'm mostly criticizing my own past behavior with all of this. I guess I should mention that. Some context!