Advice Is Like Snow

When you found someone who was tremendously appealing but not quite perfect, you might believe you could change them after marriage, not everything, just a few things, but in truth the most you could expect to change perhaps one thing and even that would eventually go back to what it had been. James Salter

Who has not attempted to mold their partner into the person they might wish them to be? Or at least, chip away at the edges of their character? People think they can change their partner or other people in general, but the long and dismal record of human relationships makes it abundantly clear that it is not going to happen.

It does, however, in Neil LaBute’s drama and later movie, The Shape of Things. A young graduate student of art virtually refashions the person of her lover. She induces him to lose weight, get rid of his glasses in favor of contacts, change his hairstyle, wear hip clothing, and straighten his nose. At her instigation, he becomes a work of art, a “human sculpture” which takes her eighteen months to create for her graduate thesis project.

She says, “it was “a simple matter of can i instill “x” amount of change in this creature, using only manipulation as my palette knife? i made sure that nothing was ever forced during our sessions or ‘sittings’ together…and that his free will was always at the forefront of each decision. i coaxed, made suggestions, created the illusion of interest and desire, but never said, ‘please do this.”

While the student shows considerable insight about manipulating behavior, one can take some consolation in knowing that life doesn’t imitate art quite so readily. Her insight is to recognize that forceful attempts to change a partner’s behavior usually backfire and serve only to elicit resistance and disagreements. Her approach is much more subtle--she makes no demands and applies little pressure. She knows that when partners feel they are understood and accepted, they are more likely to change willingly.

Indeed, her method is not unlike that of a highly successful marital therapy known as “integrative couples therapy.” As Christensen and Jacobs, the developers of this approach, put it: “The natural inclination is to try to change your partner, but efforts directed solely at such change often makes the conflict worse. When you genuinely accept your partner, you may achieve peace from the conflict and, paradoxically change from your partner.”

Again, if this is the way change occurs, we have further support for Etzioni’s argument that “core assumption” of how behavior changes may be seriously in error. More often than not, individuals change without deliberate external influence. Major shifts in behavior frequently follow unexpected, unpredictable, random events.

And less powerful techniques of external control have proved to be more effective than stronger ones. For example the research of social psychologists has suggested that a person’s interest in pursuing a desirable activity is often undermined by rewarding them for it. Similarly superfluous threats for engaging in an undesirable behavior can sometimes increase rather than decrease its occurrence.

Intentional efforts to change a person’s behavior are often most effective when a subtle, low-key approach is used. While a heavy-handed approach may induce immediate compliance, it rarely leads to lasting change. The basic idea is the same as Samuel Coleridge once suggested,

Advice is like snow: the softer it falls…the deeper it sinks into the mind. Samuel Taylor Coleridge