23 March 2005

Can people change?

Everyone who has been in a relationship has at one point or another wondered in despair: Can people really change?

Patricia’s nagging is driving John up the wall. Joe’s bad moods and temper tantrums are wearing Samantha down. Fred is always flirting with other women and his wife knows he has had affairs. Dory’s husband drinks and once hit her in a fit of rage.

Psychologists and counsellors hear a million different versions of these problems every day. Everyone who has been in a relationship has at one point or another wondered in despair: Can people really change?

The answer is yes – but the question is not really whether people can change, but how people change.

Taking the horse to the water
“People can change if there is enough motivation,” says Michelle Gottlieb, a psychotherapist. It is easier to change a habit than a personality characteristic, as these are often laid down at the age of 18. Though it is possible to modify behavioural traits after that, it is a more difficult path and usually involves psychotherapy in one form or another. In other words – it is easier to stop smoking than to stop abusive patterns in a relationship.

Unrealistic goals
It is commonly accepted that life experience influence and shape our behaviour. Alcoholism and drug abuse, violence (both emotional and physical), compulsive spending and adultery are the most common reasons for divorce or relationship break-ups.

In a modern culture driven by instant gratification, many people feel that fighting about recurring issues is enough of a reason to end a relationship.

Polly Shulman in an article in Psychology Today writes that people want to believe that there is a perfect partner out there, someone with whom they will never fight or have problems.

This unrealistic goal is a source of great unhappiness for many couples as almost all of the above mentioned problems could successfully be treated through therapy – if there is the willingness to change.

Shulman says it is a common misconception that deep down, people can’t change at all. Partners often go about changing their relationships in unproductive ways. Frustrated by the lack of results, they then claim this proves people can’t really change.

Teaching different responses
One of the most common ways to help people change is through Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. Practitioners claim this kind of therapy can teach people different ways of thinking about and responding to troublesome situations.

John Winston Bush, PhD from the New York Institute for Cognitive and Behavioural Therapies believes Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can be more successful than medication in treating the following:

  • depression and mood swings
  • obsessive traits
  • panic attacks
  • chronic anxiety
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia)
  • insomnia

Those embarking on the positive journey of making changes in their life should be aware that it is a gradual process and that results cannot be seen overnight. Therapists urge patience as modifying behaviour is slightly more complicated that changing one’s hairstyle – but ultimately, much more rewarding and therefore, perhaps worth the wait.

(Andrea Botha)



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