One of the near-constant conversations I see taking place among people around me is a discussion on change, particularly as it relates to changes in our friends’ lifestyles, priorities, and choices. And I find it all fascinating because I’ve noticed that our culture has very conflicting attitudes toward change.
People can’t change.
First, we don’t all agree on whether or not change is even possible. I hear it again and again: “People can’t change.” This is typically said in reference to some shitty person who someone we care about loves. The commonly-accepted wisdom is that if someone is treating someone else like crap in a relationship, the crappy person won’t change, and we are free to tsk tsk our friend (behind his or her back, of course) with faux sympathy and concern. Because how could this person be dumb enough to think people actually change?
Everyone loves a comeback.
At the same time, we love a good makeover, comeback story, or romantic comedy. (Rom coms are the worst offenders when it comes to glorifying change. I’m not sure that “Extreme Heart Makeover: Long-Suffering Best Friend Edition” is really all that romantic, but whatever.) I don’t know if we even want the person to succeed or not as we watch these stories play out. On the one hand, when they fail, it just reinforces the belief that people can’t change, and watching people fail often gives others a sense of superiority and satisfaction. On the other hand, it seems like we watch these shows for reasons related to our own desires to succeed. I mean, if this kid on “The Biggest Loser” who wants it so badly can’t change himself after enough hard work, well, then what does that tell me about my own goals and dreams?
Change is bad.
“They’ve changed, man.” You can just hear the smug hipster saying that about anything from a band to a restaurant to (so often) a former friend. And being told we’ve changed has a way of getting under our skin because our culture frames change as a bad thing we don’t like the reasons behind the change. No one wants to be called a sellout. So we celebrate metamorphosis, but for everyone who appreciates the butterfly, there are a bunch of caterpillars (in their tiny hipster glasses) sitting around talking about how they liked her better when she was a caterpillar. Because she became a butterfly for “The Man.” And that’s what a lot of it goes back to — The Man.
All change is a direct result of our personal relationships, and only a result of our personal relationships.
I’m beginning to see the lines being drawn. The Marrieds vs. The Singles. The Parents vs. The Childfree. The Working Moms vs. The Stay-at-Home Moms. When the change puts you on one of these teams, it’s not usually well-received by those on other teams (or even those who just identify with the other teams). Suddenly, this new relationship is blamed for every small change in lifestyle or priority. “My friend got a boyfriend and now she’s not fun.” “My friend used to love her job, but then she had kids and now all she cares about is her baby.” “My friends don’t have kids so they don’t understand.” “My friend got married and now she only has time for her husband.” “My friend used to be so fun but now his wife calls the shots.” We’ve all heard statements like these. But…why is the relationship (either romantic or parent-child) or the absence of said relationship our go-to scapegoat for all change? Is it really that simple?
It seems to me that both men and women struggle to define themselves, and what it means to be an adult in the modern world, a few years after college. Serious romantic relationships and babies tend to start happening around this time, sure, but so do new jobs, cross-country moves, health scares, newfound confidence in your sexuality, financial reality checks, exposure to more diverse ideas and opinions, evolving relationships with parents, and so many other things. Any one of those things could cause us to change our priorities in life. So when I see people automatically blaming relationships or children for their friends’ life changes, I find myself getting really frustrated. The whole thing tends to be framed as either women changing who they are for men (or, by extension, a man’s children), or women forcing men to change to be with them…two ideas which are really pretty obnoxious. The whole “she met a guy and she’s not fun anymore” trope is just so tired, as is the “my single friend is selfish and immature because she doesn’t have a boyfriend or kids” thing. The idea that whether or not a woman is on the receiving end of male attention and/or a mother has a huge effect on her personality is incredibly insulting and dismissive. So is the idea that all men are wannabe bachelors with no desire for a stable relationship unless a woman changes them (through pressure and nagging, of course).
Some people absolutely change because of relationships (and I’m not totally convinced that’s the worst thing in the world), but it seems more likely that we change due to some combination of a lot of factors and experiences. I’ve started to think that maybe new relationships are not what change us; maybe we get into these new relationships because we’ve changed. Perhaps the new spouse or the babies are not the cause, but the result, the last — but most visible — way we demonstrate a change that has been happening privately for quite some time.
Changes in your friends’ lifestyles, priorities, interests, and relationships are really hard to ignore when you’re in your twenties. And even if you aren’t being criticized for your own choices (which is really unlikely in this day and age), watching someone else change in a way that you aren’t changing (or have no desire to) can feel like a personal attack. And so it’s understandable that we have a lot of conflicting feelings on change. But since change is something we’re going to be kind of stuck with for a while (common wisdom says we can look forward to at least a decade of this shit), it seems like examining how we feel and react when our peers are changing (or not changing) in a different way than we are is a probably a worthwhile exercise. It’s something that’s been on my mind for a while and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it as well!