Why We Try So Hard to Change Our Beloved

Late at night, watching a doting mad-scientist husband slowly poison his wife in order to bring her back to life, I sigh. It never works.

Then I wonder why love makes us monsters.

Most of us do not live in The Twilight Zone, where we could literally poison our beloved. Yet we begin a relationship convinced that we can, and should, change them. All the aunties line up to warn us, but we wave them aside, sure that our love contains enough pixie dust to get the job done. We will nip and tuck the one we love into someone deeper, more grown up, less drunk, more faithful, kinder, more ambitious, more polished, whatever.

Is this a backhanded compliment to love, acknowledging its power to transform? By its very biochemistry, infatuation overwhelms us, stealing all concentration and minimizing the rest of life. The spotlight shines only on our beloved. We glide through life inches above hard ground, need neither sleep nor food. Surely a force this strong could move the mountains of personality?

On the other hand, we may just be stubborn and naïve, the heart wanting what it wants and making any excuse to have it. I wonder if people in other cultures suffer the same temporary delusion, sure of their ability to change the one they love. It fits so neatly into America’s can-do optimism, our quest for self-transformation and progress.

Nathaniel Hawthorne started us off with “The Birth-Mark,” in which Aylmer so worships the exquisite Georgiana that he is repulsed by her single flaw, a birthmark in the shape of a tiny red hand on her cheek. Other men would gladly kiss its outline, but Aylmer tells her that because her face is otherwise perfect, the mark is shocking.

Georgiana is first incensed, then devastated. How can he love her if her face is shocking to him? She promises to let him erase the birthmark, no matter what the risk. I can just see him rubbing his hands together as he sets to work with his toxic potion. How noble he is, she thinks, to refuse to settle for her as she is but instead insist on creating the most ideal version.

This Cinderella routine can be seductive. A man ordering wine for you, picking out your clothes, suggesting a different hairstyle—you wrap his silken attention around your shoulders, feeling cherished when in fact you are a wad of pink Play-doh being molded by his fantasy.

I ask the author of On Romantic Love: Simple Truths About a Complex Emotion, Dr. Berit Brogaard, why we try to change each other. “When in the grip of infatuation at the early stages of love, we are literally blind to the other person’s flaws,” she begins. “This is a kind of cognitive illusion. When the dopamine rush that lies at the heart of such puppy love fades, that’s when we wake up to the reality of those defects.”

We want our dopamine back. We set out to erase the flaws. “Our desire to return to flawless, crazy love is a side-effect of a biological adaptation,” explains Brogaard, a philosopher who also brings neuroscience to bear. “It is also deeply irrational.”

I nod, thinking of all these men killing their beloved in order to reinvent her. Even as metaphor, it is deeply irrational. I suspect that men in earlier decades only realized a woman’s flaws after marriage, women being careful not to express too much of themselves until the vows were said. Men often had obvious flaws at the get-go, and women decided ahead of time that they could change them. Furthermore, that it was a wife’s responsibility and societal obligation to change them. Wives killed their husbands slowly, with years of carping.

While Aylmer was obsessed with human perfection, most women were happy if their guy simply wore what they thought appropriate, said all the right things, did the honey-do’s, made enough money, and gave up any troublesome vices or habits. The key was to not embarrass us in any way, because somewhere we had picked up the weird notion that whatever this other creature said or did in public was a direct reflection on us. We owned, and would pay for, for their behavior. Therefore any significant deviation must be eliminated.

“The sunk cost fallacy, a common cognitive bias, is also at play,” Brogaard continues. Economists tell us that if we have already sunk time, effort, or money into a losing proposition, we continue doing so, rather than pull out and see it all wasted. By this logic, “if partner flaws stand in the way of our getting our ‘money’s worth,’ our inclination is to attempt to correct the flaws rather than end the relationship.”

Same-sex couples seem freer of all this baggage, though that could be a trick of distance. For those of us trapped by societal standards and expectations, a little internal warfare must be waged to bring the impulses under control. Because “as much as we want to fight them,” Brogaard says, “virtually all of us have internalized these traditional gender roles to some degree.”

The result? Centuries of cisgender nagging and a few monstrous attempts at alchemy. All in the name of love.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.