Illuminated sign saying "Time for Change"

Can a Person Really Change?

Daniel and Rebecca have been together for 3 years.  Rebecca is trying to decide whether they will be together for another 3 years, or maybe 3 days, or maybe 3 hours. 

When Daniel drinks, he becomes a mean drunk.  He yells; he screams; he verbally abuses Rebecca.  He never physically abuses her, but the screaming drives Rebecca crazy, especially since it seems to be over—nothing. 

Daniel picks on different supposed faults on different days, but none of them bear any resemblance to reality, at least that Rebecca can figure out.  And apparently Daniel can’t find any resemblance to reality either. 

The next morning, when he is sober, Daniel apologizes profusely.  He seems to mean it.  He is sorry. 

But he hasn’t meant it enough to change his behavior.  He has stopped drinking, but only for a week or at most two at a time. Then he is back on the bottle. 

Rebecca gave him an ultimatum a week ago.  Daniel decided to stop drinking. His decision lasted exactly one week.  He is at it again.  Now Rebecca has to decide.  3 years?  3 days?  3 hours?  3 minutes? What?


How many times have you heard from a partner or a potential partner -- “I will change. Really” — or some variant of that?

Of course, people can change.  They get taller.  They get heavier, or lighter.  They can change their hair color, or even their sex.

Can people change their destructive habits?

But can they change psychologically in a meaningful way?  Can they, in a sense, become someone else?

The best answer to this question I ever heard was actually given as the answer to a different question.

The late Professor William Kessen, a colleague of mine during the many years I was a professor at Yale, commented: “One never really fully quits smoking. One only goes into remission.”

His point was that one can stop smoking, but one is always at risk for starting again; similarly, one can stop drinking, but one is always at risk for starting up again, anytime, anyplace.

People can change, but they are always at risk for the same problem as the smokers and the drinkers—reversion to their previous behavior.

What's your destructive habit?

I know from hard experience.  I gave up biting my nails after doing it for my whole life and was doing a pretty great job of it—and then came the 2020 US presidential election.

And soon came a bite here, and a bite there, and now I have to totally stop again.

I can’t tell you how many times I have lost weight “for good,” only to gain it back.

I’m not alone in that one!  My weight is down now, but for how long?

I hope forever, but let me tell you: Do I miss that special macaroni and cheese recipe Karin makes!  And for my birthday, well, I just had to have some.

What is your bad habit?  What is your partner’s?

Are you a scold?

Are you addicted to shopping?

Do you drink or smoke too much?

Are you selfish?

Do you cheat on your partner?

You know you can change every one of these things.

If you are scold, you can shut up for 5 minutes and think about whether you really, really need to scold your partner.

If you are addicted to shopping, then you know that you don’t need another dress or pair of shoes or whatever it is that you think you want.

If you drink or smoke too much, you may need outside help.  You might need therapy or you might need smoking-reduction aids or you might just have to decide your health is too important to fritter away—so you just give it up cold turkey.

If you are selfish, you know that every time you put yourself first, you are undermining your intimate relationship.  Is it really worth it to get your way, for what?

Choice of restaurant?  Choice of hotel?  Choice of TV show?  What?  What is it worth to you to undermine your relationship—the TV show?

Make a decision: Not once, but every day

If you cheat, you know—you really know—that it won’t end up well. It never does.  Everyone who does it hopes it will, but it doesn’t.

Whatever your problem is, you need a better way out of it.  Look, I know it’s easy to say all these things and it’s hard to do them.  But they all can be done.

But whatever problem you solve—smoking, drinking, shopping, cheating, scolding, or just having to have your way—you also need to know that the secret to changing yourself is not making the decision one day or another, but rather about making that decision, over and over and over again.

Because the temptation always will be there. The people who change are not the ones who decide once, or who simply have a lot of willpower, but the ones who decide and decide again and again that they are going to be different.

Do whatever you can to remind yourself of your decision to increase the chances you will stick with it. Here are some ideas:

  • Write yourself a note in your calendar
  • If you include your partner, have regular meetings to discuss where things have been going well (or not so well), and to have some accountability.
  • Create some external reminders to make things easier in the beginning (for example, check in with your partner about their day as soon as you sit down for dinner).
  • Try the good old rubber band method: Put a rubber band on your wrist. As soon as you find yourself reverting to your bad habit, lift the rubber band and snap it on your wrist, just enough so that it hurts a bit. Very soon, you'll find yourself consciously trying to avoid that pain.
  • Keep reminding yourself, even in writing if you can, about the benefits you gain from change.

If you can keep making that decision to change, over and over again, then you truly have transformed yourself, for just so long as you keep making that same decision.

What happened to Daniel and Rebecca?  What do you think?

You guessed, right?  He lost her.

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