True Love or Our Never-Ending Quest to Change Each Other

Change is in the air. All sorts. All ways. All driven by society. This perpetual transformation pushes developments in technology, science, economics, communication, education and … the list goes on.

There’s another equally long list, certainly significant, but not quite so dramatic, that involves much smaller change: really just a penny’s worth. Nevertheless, that kind of change seems to be perpetual too. I’m referring to the behavioral changes we humans try to induce in others, the changes we can’t resist promoting: weight change, smoking cessation, healthy eating, green living, exercise, frugality, neatness, listening, etc.

Attempting to bring about behavioral change in others is a habit that we humans believe is within our rights. Unfortunately, it is frequently circular, such as ‘I want to change you; you want to change me.’ Thus, we bounce back and forth chaotically and, in the process, provoke little change.

And so, through the years, I have learned that when we try to change certain behavioral characteristics in others, failure is often at hand. That does not stop me. Nor does it stop anyone else.

A first-person example is required here. When I was very young, and until I left my father’s home, he often said to me, “Suzann, turn off the lights when you leave a room. I don’t have stock in the United Illuminating Company.” My beloved father’s comment was just a little testy. And I found it weird, when some years later, my husband Ed said the same thing in almost the same words.

In the early years of our marriage, Ed would begin by saying “Honey, please turn off the lights when you leave a room.” In later years, I’d hear, “Sue, shut off the lights when you leave a room! We don’t own shares in Public Service.” His tone was just a bit testy, too. The campaign, by both my dad and my husband, to effect change in me broke down but never stopped. To this day I sometimes hear that command in my sleep, “Turn out the lights when you leave the room!” Admittedly, Sue’s failure to change.

In my defense, I like lights on in a room even before I get there. Therefore, I don’t turn them off when I leave. I can’t explain this but it’s a fact.

Our grandson likes lights too. When Jonah was about 2-1/2 years old, he started playing with the light switch near my side of the bed. I didn’t try to change him. Oh no! I didn’t say, “Jonah, stop playing and turn off the lights.” I simply sat quietly and watched as he turned the switch on and off, whispering, “Yights on, Yights off. Yights on, Yights off.” I thought Jonah had to be exceptionally smart in order to understand the connection between light and switch.  That story might not be relevant to this discussion. Sorry.

So, returning to the topic of behavioral change: the failure to attempt change in others exhibits a strange but clear pattern. At first, change may or may not seem to work; then it may work intermittently; finally, the change, if it has occurred at all, disappears completely.

Reducing that concept to the personal once again, my husband Ed has tried over the years to change my conduct on many issues besides lights. He and I just celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. I was lucky to have found him. He is wonderful. But I do recognize that we have lived together happily for all those 50 years while continually trying to modify each other’s behavior. `

On one of our earlier dates, Ed took me to La Cave Henri VIII on East 50th Street in Manhattan. Over dinner that night, Ed made his first attempt to change me. He couldn’t resist. I was not a good eater. In fact, I was a lousy eater. My other dates would look at my plate at the end of dinner and ask, “Is that all you’re going to eat?” They were thinking of their newly emptied wallets and envisioned most of the expensive dinner on my plate disappearing with the garbage.

In great contrast, my honey-to-be, looked at my plate on the table of the elegant La Cave Henri, looked at the fork in my hand, looked at most of my food scattered to the edges of my plate, looked at the big empty space in the middle—my effort to make the uneaten food vanish from sight—and said, “If you don’t want to eat anymore, don’t. But don’t play with your food.” I shrugged, put my fork down, and grinned. It was almost but not quite love at first sight. I  was truly impressed.  Ed’s attempt to change Sue was a success. It was a noteworthy and courageous undertaking.

Five months later we became engaged; two months after that, we were married. Bliss for another two months.

Ed and I moved into a rental apartment in Plainfield, NJ. Then, he and I had our first fight and I pulled out a suitcase to pack up and leave. I was very angry but don’t remember why. In short time, though, I recognized the implications of the suitcase lying open on the bed: it was nighttime, I had no car and didn’t know where to go even if I had one. In truth, I was relieved when Ed grabbed the empty suitcase, closed it with a loud bang, and thrust it away into the closet where it was normally stored. After a short but intense staring match, we talked it out. I would no longer run away. Our discussion and Ed’s firm stance had changed me, and introduced the idea that true love conquered all.

Later, however, he told me that his actions were based, not on love, but on what to do with all the wedding presents we had recently received. Give them back? Too embarrassing. What a way to keep a marriage going. Nonetheless, Ed did modify my behavior. I had learned to stand my ground and fight back. I’m not sure that he was happy about that. Partial success on Ed’s part to change Sue.

Yet another attempted change: over time, Ed has complained that I don’t say I’m sorry, even if I’m not. That doesn’t make sense to me but it does sound terrible, doesn’t it? “Why can’t you apologize,” says he. “Because I didn’t do anything wrong,” says I. If I’m not sorry about some perceived wrongdoing, from Ed’s perspective anyway, how can I say I’m sorry? It gets complicated, but Ed continues to work on it while I remain firm. Again, Sue’s failure to change.

On the other hand, Ed doesn’t close the side door when he leaves the house for the mail—our mailbox is about 100 feet away at the foot of our driveway. I’ve tried everything. First, if it’s winter and if I’m in a nearby room, I whine that I’m cold when the door is left open. Next, I tell him that he’s wasting the heat and costing us money. At last, I start to holler. To no avail. The door stands open when Ed gets the mail. I don’t bother in warmer weather. I’m not cold. And yes, I know. It’s my fault he doesn’t change. I’m not consistent. But what about Ed’s inability to wipe his feet when he comes in from the outdoors and tracks all kinds of junk onto my clean kitchen floor. I plead, “Please, please wipe your feet, Ed.” Consistency is not an issue here! Ed’s failure to change includes two for one in this paragraph; not fair, you say? I’m sorry.

Which reminds me of a story about Marlo Thomas and her husband Phil Donohue when they were newly weds. He flagged down a taxi one day and, in a gentlemanly gesture, held open the back door of the cab for his wife. While he was doing that, Marlo hopped into the front seat next to the cabbie. Phil was astounded because once he had seated her in the back, alone, he would have gotten into the front and spent the ride blithly chatting away to the cab driver on his left, as was his habit. As was Marlo’s habit.

Did he change Marlo? I’ll bet he tried. Did they work it out by taking turns, by flipping a coin, by calling out “Odds or evens? once, twice, three, shoot!” or did they simply fight over the front seat each time they took cabs together? How was it settled? Was it ever settled? Probably failure to change on both sides.

Well, did I change Ed? Did he change me? What about Marlo and Phil? Any changes there? Probably not as often as any of us would have liked. Our attempts, though, are as perpetual as our hopes for modification. And despite failure, we humans remain everlastingly optimistic about changing the behavior in others, especially when it comes to our loved ones.

Not that it’s impossible . . .

Dear Reader: What about your attempts to change your loved one? Anything interesting?


Suzann B. Goldstein lives with her husband Ed in the Watchung mountains of New Jersey. She is co-founder of THE VALERIE FUND, has her Master of Arts degree in medical sociology from Rutgers University, is a published author and poet, and has just recently completed her memoir, Unexpected Lives.
Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein