Can people change? The question may sound overly dramatic or philosophical, but if we’re thinking about it, it tends to be very personal. We often ask ourselves this question when we’re in a strained relationship, whether it’s with a friend, family member, or partner, whose actions (or inactions) are continually causing pain—to you, or themself, or both.
This isn’t about forgetting to load the dishwasher, but rather things like substance use, or dishonesty, or behavior that’s detached or cruel. Even when we come to terms with the fact that change is needed, and we communicate clearly with our person about it, actually achieving change can be much more complicated. In the midst of our frustration, a deeper question bubbles up:
Are people capable of real change?
In this video, philosopher Alain de Botton explains some of the barriers we should be prepared to face during these sorts of crises of relationship.
The Four Barriers to Change
1) It’s really hard, for any of us, to achieve significant change in our lives.
First of all, one thing is clear: Even if human nature makes us capable of change, we don’t get there easily.
Your person may overreact negatively to being asked to do something differently. Or, they might say they understand and will make an effort to change, which raises your hopes—but then they don’t follow up with meaningful action. In fact, says de Botton, it’s likely that they already knew there was a problem even before you brought it up: “We can, at best, conclude that by the time we’ve had to raise the question of change in our minds, someone around us has managed not to change either very straightforwardly or very gracefully,” he says.
2) Wanting someone to change can lead to resentment—on both sides.
You might hear, “Why should I change? You should love me for who I am!” So is it wrong to ask somebody to change? What’s often happening here is that, in making you feel like you are the one to blame here, your person avoids engaging with their own flaws. It can make you feel like you’re talking to a brick wall.
Within a truly caring relationship, both people are open to, at the very least, considering the possibility of change in order to meet each other’s needs—and those who resist even a gentle, caring suggestion for change are most likely the same people who really do need to examine their behavior. But trying to push them to do so can lead to an impasse and a souring of communication.
3. There can be bigger reasons why someone won’t change.
So why is it so hard for someone to change, even in small steps? “A person’s entire character may be structured around an active aspiration not to know, and not to feel, particular things,” de Botton explains. To some extent, we all have painful experiences in our past—or even in the present—that we bury deep down. “The possibility of insight will be aggressively warded off through drink, compulsive work routines, or offended irritation,” says de Botton. In some cases, the deeper issue may be that we’re dealing not with someone who refuses to change, but with someone who is traumatized.
When we can realize this, there may be space for us to feel compassion for the dear one who refuses to attempt change. But that doesn’t mean you should be patient with them forever.
4. Maybe, it’s not them…it’s you.
If someone keeps on doing things that they know hurt us, or themselves, it’s hard to say how long we should keep on hoping for the light to go on—especially when our sincere efforts to help seem unappreciated.
Then we need to ask ourselves a harder question: Why am I still here? Why do I come back over and over, only to meet more frustration, worry, and sadness? Often, we’re too emotionally or practically invested in the relationship to give up. It’s not just the other person, but ourselves, who is hard-pressed to grow beyond where we currently are. “Might we, one day,” asks de Botton, “change into characters who don’t sit around waiting without end for other people to change?”
There is no obligation to stay forever with people who are not willing to enact reasonable changes that meet our needs. That’s a one-sided relationship, and it won’t be viable for the long haul. No matter how much you still care about someone, you need to prioritize your own well-being. It’s important to think things through, get the advice of outside people whom we can trust, and, perhaps, initiate change ourselves by leaving an unhealthy situation.