Can you ever really change someone?
It’s a question I get asked often – and no prizes for who’s doing the asking.
Yup. It’s women wanting to change men. And invariably, it’s a nice woman asking if she can change a ‘bad boy’.
There’s a very short answer to this question: do THEY want to change?
There are ‘bad’ people who are frustrated and misunderstood – the popular Hollywood perception – and there are people who are simply bad news.
Most women think the trick is knowing the difference. The reality is there is no way of knowing at first, which often means you’re dragged into a toxic situation before you realise just how bad it is.
For every Warren Beatty/Annette Benning success story there’s a Katy Perry/Russell Brand screaming failure.
Personally, I’ve never understood the appeal of a bad boy: give me someone who treats me well every single time. My general advice is not to go there at all (unless it’s for a hot one-night-stand – the one thing bad boys do tend to deliver on).
But if you’re already emotionally entangled, here’s my honest take on what chance you have of changing someone, depending on what the issue is.
I’ve addressed this to straight women dating men, because they are the ones who generally get drawn in, but the principles apply to everyone.
Tracey Cox has shared her honest take on what chance you have of changing someone, depending on what the issue is (stock photo)
You’re besotted and three months into a relationship when it comes out that he cheated in a previous one. Should you run?
The first, most crucial piece of info you need to know is this: Has he cheated often, on a lot of people, or was this a one off?
If it’s a lifelong habit, the news isn’t good.
A recent study of 500 adults followed two lots of (mixed gender) relationships. Researchers asked participants to report their own infidelity and whether they knew or suspected their partner had been unfaithful.
Perhaps predictably, people who reported being unfaithful in the first relationship were three times more likely to report being unfaithful in the second (compared to people who didn’t cheat).
The majority of research backs up this finding: there is truth to the saying ‘once a cheat, always a cheat’.
Another telling question to ask is why they did it.
A true serial cheater has no moral compass and will often see nothing wrong with being unfaithful.
Other people cheat in relationships they aren’t committed to or aren’t happy in, others have affairs in retribution for a partner who did the dirty on them.
Find out the circumstances behind why they did what they did. Then ask yourself: “Is our relationship different than the rest” or “Are they in a very different place now than they were then”?
Tracey Cox has revealed the types of men who are very unlikely to change, including serial cheats and those who firmly don’t want children
Verdict: If they regret what they did, it doesn’t appear to be a habit and you’ve made it very (very) clear you won’t stand for it, give them a chance to change. But keep your eyes wide open and see what’s there, not what you want to see. Trust your gut: most women who suspect their partner is cheating are right.
He parties a lot
Let’s define ‘party’ first.
If this person has a genuine substance abuse problem, proceed at your own peril. If it’s early into the relationship when you find this out, my advice is exit immediately.
I’d exit at any stage, to be honest. I had first-hand experience living with an alcoholic and it was not something I will ever repeat. Addiction is bigger than you. Bigger than the two of you. The person has to want to change – really want to change, not just be paying lip service to calm the situation and keep you – and they need help from experts.
It’s more partying than hard addiction? Age and stage factor into this, obviously. Partying hard at 18 is very different to partying hard at 40. If he is older and still hitting it hard, what’s the reason for it? Is it what they’ve always done or is it a reaction to something that’s happened more recently? A bad break-up, perhaps? Or frustrated by chasing a dream they’re rapidly realising isn’t going to happen?
Circumstances count – but even if there does seem to be a good reason, still tread warily.
Don’t fall for the rescue fairy tale. Not all bad people are good underneath: they’re not all frogs that turn into Prince’s when you kiss them.
It’s not just hurt feelings or arguments you’ll be dealing with if you hook up with a hard-hitting party animal. You might end up addicted to something yourself or with a criminal conviction.
At the very least, partiers disrupt. You’ll get less sleep, have more arguments and worry more than people in relationships.
HOW DO YOU CHANGE BAD BEHAVIOUR?
There are five rules you absolutely must stick to, if you want your partner to change their behaviour.
Set limits. Make it crystal clear what you will and won’t put up with. Bad guys secretly want – and certainly need – discipline, so don’t be scared to spell out the boundaries. The more you let them walk all over you, the less they’ll respect you and the less likely they are to change.
Don’t be their partner in crime. Don’t rush to their rescue, don’t pay their rent, bail them out of bad situations or cover for them. It’s true that people need to hit rock bottom in order to change.
Keep your eyes open and know when to get out. Some people are bad apples: rotten to the core. If they’re disrupting your life and you’re risking your job and your relationships with your friends and family for them, it’s simply not worth it.
Make is safe for them to show their good side. If the tough act is exterior only and really is there to protect the traumatised, softer person inside (the fantasy you’re hoping is true), the more you open up and talk about your feelings, the safer they’ll feel to do the same.
Ask yourself: what are they getting out of this? Sometimes bad people hook up with nice ones when they’re ready to change. They know you’ll give them the kick up the bum they need to get motivated. Other times, they’ve hooked up with you for not so nice reasons. They get off on corrupting you to see how far they can drag you down. (It’s a power thing. If they can drag you down to their level, you’re really no better than they are, after all.)
What if I seem to only ever go out with bad boys?
While most of us find ‘bad’ appealing now and then (for sex, for instance), some people seem to find an endless supply of partners who treat them badly.
This isn’t being unlucky or lacking judgement skills – you are unconsciously but deliberately seeking out a particular kind of man. This usually stems from your childhood. If one of your parents was abusive or emotionally unavailable, you’ll choose someone who makes you feel the same way, simply because it’s familiar. It sounds counterintuitive (and it is) but it’s how the brain functions. A few sessions with a good counsellor can work wonders (try relate.org.uk or bacp.org.uk).
Excessive partying means a lack of judgement and control. How can you trust someone you know won’t be in any fit state to make a sensible choice or decision?
Verdict: Spell out exactly what you will and won’t put up with and see what reaction you get. Are they willing to compromise? If they are, see if they’re able to deliver. If you’re deeply into them, you might want to give one or two chances if they seem to be trying. Strike three and they’re out. Walk away.
He’s a confirmed bachelor
If you dream of a meringue dress and have your eye on a commitment phobe, prepare for a rocky ride.
Most men say what they mean and mean what they say – so if he’s told you he isn’t interested in marriage or settling down, take him at his world. He isn’t.
Whether that’s negotiable or will change over time depends on several variables.
How old is he? A 22-year-old who wants to stay single is (obviously) a different scenario to a 50-year-old man wanting the same thing. What we want out of life changes as we age. The younger the guy, the more chance you have of him changing his mind.
Has he had committed relationships in his past? It’s a good sign if he has. He’s capable of commitment, just doesn’t fancy doing it again. Delve a little deeper and you’ll usually find a reason for it (someone has hurt him badly).
What are his reasons for not wanting to commit to you? Most committed commitment phobes will be brutally honest if you ask them this question. ‘I don’t like being told what to do.’ ‘I’m not prepared to lose half my income if it doesn’t work out’. ‘I’m genuinely happier on my own’.
Listen to the reason. Can you see a compromise that might make both of you happy? Equally as important, are they interested in hearing about it? Lots of commitment phobes are perfectly content.
Verdict: If they aren’t ready now, ask when they will be. If the answer is never, that’s the reality. If they agree to a time frame, make them stick to it. If they reneg once the agreed date arrives, give up.
He doesn’t want children
It’s not just Monica on Friends who got her heart broken by hoping a man would change his mind about having children.
I’ve seen several friends bitterly disappointed when they realise that, even if someone loves you and you’ve been together for years, wanting children isn’t a given.
It’s equally painful on either side. If your partner agrees they also don’t want children and then suddenly change their mind, having to make the choice of given into having children or losing them is also heart breaking.
Yet women continue to knowingly commit to men who they know don’t want children, hoping they will change their mind over time.
Yes, a small percentage of men do turn around, take to Instagram, and pronounce their newborn ‘the best thing that’s ever happened to me’ after a ‘happy accident’.
But a lot don’t feel that way. A lot of men feel resentful and/or conned and find having children exactly as unfulfilling and restricting as they feared.
In that scenario, everyone loses – you, your partner and your children.
Verdict: Is it ‘I never want children under any circumstances’ or ‘I don’t want children right now and not sure about the future’.
Ask if you can have a conversation about it because it’s important to you. If he refuses, there is no chance of him changing his mind.
If he agrees, maybe. Ask gentle but pertinent questions. Is he worried he won’t make a good Dad? (Common if his own father was horribly lacking). Is it worried he won’t be able to financially support children? (He might be too embarrassed to admit something like this.) If he already has children and they’re now grown up, he might simply not want a repeat.
Parenting young children isn’t easy and he might not want to give up his newfound freedom. Once you know the full picture, you should be able to gauge his chances of change. If you’re still unsure, assume he won’t change.
He’s selfish and treats you badly
There is nothing fun or sexy about being treated badly. If you’re with someone who is being verbally or physically abusive, leave. Few abusers reform: there it is in black and white. Find the support you need (there are lots of support groups online, if you don’t want to involve friends and family) and make plans to leave – now.
If it’s more that he’s selfish, doesn’t think and puts his own needs first?
Check you haven’t hooked up with a narcissist. A lot of ‘bad boys’ are – their grandiose view of themselves and sense of entitlement means they put their needs over yours every single time.
Tracey has addressed issues such as he cheats, he parties a lot, he’s a confirmed bachelor, he doesn’t want children or he’s selfish and treats you badly – and gives her verdict (stock photo)
The key issue here is – how do they feel about themselves?
Do they see a problem with how they treat you? Or is it just you?
The problem with fixing bad guys is that most don’t want to be fixed. Very few are comfortable with being in a submissive position with someone else having power over them. Very few admit to having faults.
Verdict: Few things get me more riled than women saying ‘nice guys are boring’. It’s the bad guys who are boring. They’re the ones who are predictable because they nearly always fail to keep their promises. You’re guaranteed someone who will continue to cheat, not call, hurt you and disappoint you.
If you must try to change him, hand over a list that specifies exactly how you want to be treated: what you will and won’t put up with. Give him a week to conform to it and say it’s over if he doesn’t. Then walk – towards the nice men.
You’ll find more love and sex advice on traceycox.com, as well as Tracey’s two product ranges, Edge and Supersex. Her new book, Great Sex Starts at 50, is out now.
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