Self Improvement — 03 July 2005
What we can and cannot change about ourselves

After the infatuation stage is over couples begin to see each other more realistically. They wish their partner could change his or her displeasing traits and behaviors. The change, of course can come only from within the individual and even with the best intentions people cannot change their nature, only their conduct.

Recent research at Emory University found a genetic mechanism within male voles, (yes, rodents), which determines whether or not they will be faithful partners and devoted fathers. The researchers also found the same mechanism embedded in human DNA, but do not yet know how it relates to individual behavior. Research is substantiating again what many clinicians assume to be the role of biology in human reactions.

As humans, we are believed to have willful control over our conduct, even about addictions and diseases. Though the relationship between the will and the capacity for change is yet unclear, it appears that certain traits are stable and permanent.

Each person’s personality seems to have a certain “structure” that supports the emotional balance and effective functioning of that individual. For example, an orderly, organized and predictable person develops the behaviors that assure him order and stability. A person who feels compelled to routinely help others may rely on this behavior to confirm his sense of self-worth. Asking the orderly person to disregard chaos, or the helper to ignore the needs of others, are unrealistic requests because they threaten the psychological well being of that individual. Generous people are not likely to withhold sharing nor would curious people avoid learning.

What sometimes occurs in couples is that one partner desires or even insists on a change that compromises the safety, security and psychological balance of the mate. This request will not be honored and both partners may repeat their fight throughout their relationship on this very issue.

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that each individual is not aware of his or her personality “structure”. If one knew what threatened her emotional well being, she could initially articulate it and reduce the ensuing struggles.

Dr. John Gottman, a marital researcher and author found that 67 percent of all couple’s difficulties never change. One possible reason may be that those conflicts revolve around the partners’ basic unchangeable personality traits. Couples are often unaware of the specific causes for the repeated fights, though they know well the sequence of their argument about it and that it is an everlasting problem. Much of the conflict deals with what seems to be preferences, attitudes, ideas or certain topics, little emphasis is placed on the threat of change for either person’s emotional balance.

For example, one couple frequently argues about how little they travel. She feels very confined and suffocated by staying home for long periods of time. He feels satisfied with enjoying the home, the backyard and the garage and finds her need to travel unreasonable. The fight is predictable and frustrating to both. What this pair is unaware of is that her wanderlust and his sedentary nature are structural and not a passive way to annoy each other. When she stays home for a while, she begins to pace, feel agitated, is irritable and acts as a caged animal. When he is demanded to travel, he becomes intensely fearful, withdrawn, feels insecure and incompetent and ceases to function.

So how does an individual know what changes can be safely made and which ones will threaten his or her emotional balance?

Ask yourself:” What is behind the repeated fights I have with my mate?” “ If I changed to please my partner, what do I visualize will happen to me?” “If this demand were to be magnified by one hundred percent, how well will I cope?” You may be able to ascertain what changes are threatening to your personality structure and what are behaviors that you may prefer to keep, could change without undue trauma to yourself.

Physically, we are aware of our personal levels of comfort and need. We know how well we can tolerate loud noises, cold weather, heat, sun, or hunger. We are also more articulate and non-defensive about voicing these needs than we are about non-physical behaviors.

Most people are able to articulate what is unpleasant for them, what they dislike, and what “makes them crazy”. These are three levels of discomfort that also may hint as to what is preferential and what stretches the personality structure.

Partners need to honor each other’s limits and choices, even if they do not fully understand their basis. If your partner tells you that she “can’t possibly do this”, assume that it is a severe threat to her personality balance. Mates are also encouraged to use the intensity of the objection to certain behavior changes as a guide to understanding the depth of the resistance. Nonverbal communication in pitch, tone of voice and agitated mannerism, may also serve to underscore the deeper meaning of the resistance to change.

• Each individual’s personality structure is innate and serves to maintain the person’s psychological well being.
• No person can afford to make drastic changes that may cause emotional imbalance.
• Realize that your partner’s resistance to change may not be capricious, but a safeguarding of his or her personality structure.
• People can and do change their conduct to please their mate. When they resist, there are deeper issues to be considered.
• You can decipher your own resistance to change by imaging in your mind the reaction you may have if you complied.
• Being amenable to change to please a mate is wise. Most often it is inconvenient, rather than dangerous. If you can change your behavior and stay safe, both of you will be blessed.

July 3, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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