Many problems that arise in a couple's relationship are related to the fact that people fall in love with who might become their partner sometime in the future and not with who they are now.
You knew them, you discovered that you like certain aspects of them and you started to project on them an ideal version that you are convinced that they will reach sometime in the future, especially if you insist to convince them that all they have to do is: discipline themselves, learn more, change their job, give up their friends, give up their addictions, work more or, as the case may be, work less, lose weight, go to the gym, go to therapy, learn to communicate better, control their emotions better and so on.
If you don’t love and accept your partner as he/she is right now, you will try to change them in order to make them become that ideal version you project on them, because you saw they have the potential (real or just imagined by you) to evolve and become what you hope they will become. However, if you see a certain potential in someone, this doesn’t mean that the person will want or be able to fructify and manifest that potential.
In this case, your partner will feel rejected and unappreciated, they will perceive that you nag and criticize them, and you will most likely suffer disappointment after disappointment when you find that he or she fails to meet your expectations. You may end up disliking them with each passing day and directly or indirectly despising them because you will end up focusing exactly on the aspects that you want to change about them and that they don’t want to change. Even if these aren’t flaws, you will end up seeing them as flaws. Compared to that idealized version, the current version of themselves ends up bothering you more and more.
Of course, it’s normal to encourage and support our partner to achieve their goals and dreams, to want him/her to be ok or to want them to evolve in accordance with their highest good, but the main requirement is your partner should also want all these things.
There is nothing wrong with helping your partner discover or explore another side of themselves. Sometimes people don’t know their potential and don’t know that they could do much more because they don’t trust themselves, they despise themselves or they follow certain beliefs like: "I can't", "I don't deserve that", "I'm not good enough". But it’s important to realize when to stop. If your partner doesn’t want all the things you want for him for himself, he/she will not be willing to make any effort to change, precisely because he/she doesn’t want to change.
If you fall in love with a person’s potential, that is, with what you imagine they could become, the way you see them becomes biased, but also your behavior changes:
- you ignore the red flags that you wouldn’t normally overlook - for example, your partner starts drinking frequently and/or he/she becomes abusive with you (whether we are talking about verbal abuse, emotional or physical abuse), but you start making excuses for them, you start lying to yourself that “it happened only once and it will never happen again”, you start blaming yourself “I must have done something that he/she got upset”. You think they will change, because they have so much potential and they will become aware of that very soon and they will take the right path;
- you are more concerned about how the relationship will be in the future and how you will feel in the future when you hope that everything will be "perfect" and you end up neglecting all those aspects that matter in the relationship currently and without which, in fact, will be no future to dream of - for example, you don't feel appreciated, loved, respected or you don't feel that your partner cares about your needs and desires. You start thinking that your partner is having a difficult time at work or that they have certain problems that distract them and this is why they are like that now (even if this "now" actually lasts for months and years);
- you make countless compromises and sacrifices thinking that you have to bear and endure now in order to be ok afterwards - for example, you overlook all their harmful or toxic behaviors, you find them excuses and justifications because you don’t want to end the relationship, hoping and still dreaming of that bright future and a miraculous change;
- you spend more time and energy trying to motivate and encourage your partner to pursue their goals and dreams than he/she spends. You help them, you do certain things for them or in their place, but they are not interested or concerned at all. In a way, they do things to get rid of your insistence;
- you ignore their flaws or misbehavior - even if your partner is lying or cheating on you, even if they often misbehave with you, they insult you, they humiliate you, they don’t keep their promises or they let you down, you minimize or simply ignore all these things. You think that if you love him/her enough or if you agree to make certain sacrifices and compromises for them, you will heal them only by loving them and you will turn them into that Prince Charming who you hope they will become;
When you fall in love with a person's potential, you fall in love with an illusion, because you don't know if that potential will also be manifested in reality. You fall in love with who you would like him or her to be, you fall in love with an idealized version of themselves and you no longer see the reality that stands in front of you. You ignore or minimize the negative and you focus only on the positive, no matter how illusory it may be, because at one point the qualities you initially noticed started to become mega-qualities that promise you, in your perception, a better future. The more time passes and the promise is not fulfilled, the more frustrated, insistent or confused you become. You wonder what you could do more instead of wondering if he/she really wants or not to do more.
You become so focused on what might be that you end up not seeing what is already there. You think that if you motivate your partner, if you insist, if you say the right things, you will succeed to make them change. In a way, you try to instill in them or even make them follow your ideals, your desires, your needs, and he/she will respond by showing you exactly what you don't want to see – his/her needs, his/her desires, his/her ideals that are in perfect harmony with who he/she is now, with that version that you want to change.
Yes, your partner can change if he/she wants to, but at his/her own pace, not at your pace. Your partner can achieve their goals, but not your goals. Focus on what he/she is and what he/she is putting effort into. Focus on facts and see if you accept, admire, and love them for who they are now or for who he/she might become.
I listened to a lot of people telling me "I help him/her with everything he/she needs to get himself together, to find himself, to realize what he/she wants / I invest in them to become a successful person". Somehow, they invested in their partners, wanting them to fulfill their potential, because, from a certain perspective, they didn’t see them on their level, but not because they considered themselves better than they, but because they thought that their partners didn’t have the necessary opportunities, they weren’t helped, they weren’t motivated enough, ambitious enough, but with the right kick they can achieve everything they want.
I invite you to notice if you have become your partner’s Savior - if you feel it’s up to you to bring out all those qualities that are just underneath the surface of him/her, if you feel that you can transform your partner into the best version of themselves (a version imagined by you), through your love, through your care, through your sacrifice, through your strong commitment. If you think that all that is missing to have that bright future together is just that moment when he/she will realize that he/she needs to work on himself to heal his/her wounds, to change his/her beliefs, and perfect their skills, that moment when he/she will realize that you are worth changing for, that moment when he/she will realize that he/she has no reason to be scared of commitment, that moment when he/she will mature...
If you feel that he/she is not the right partner for you now, don’t count on the fact that at some point they will change and they will become, in the end, everything you want. It's like gambling all your money, hoping you'll magically get rich.
Observe the reality as it is, observe your partner as he/she is, and make decisions according to what you have observed.
Dr. Ursula Sandner