There I was, watching Miranda watch her child while I watched myself getting visibly angry at what I saw. She was picking up pretzel goldfish while making sure her little guy didn’t wander off – this alone was a challenge to say the least. In the meantime, the little boy had managed to tip the stroller over, spilling his mom’s Auntie Anne’s soda into the bag of new clothes she just purchased from Lord & Taylor. Why was I angry? Her husband was sitting on his arse playing on his cell phone during this whole interaction. At one point, Miranda eyed him for support, though she may as well have been staring at a mirage. The very next thing she did was, to me at first glance, an awesome thing. She picked up their son, put him on her husbands lap, and started walking over to the concessions kiosk to retrieve napkins. When she returned however, her son was sitting in the stroller putting his soda soaked hands in her purse and removing things from it. At that point, Miranda literally could have launched herself into space on account of how much steam was coming from her ears. Miranda’s reaction, however, was predictably moot. And as she began picking up the various items from the ground, her husband stood up and told her, “I’m heading to Sharper Image. You can find me there when you’re done.”
Now, you may be asking me how I know Miranda’s name. The answer is very simple, I asked her. I subsequently shared with her what I did for a living and asked if I could interview her for an article I was writing on the importance of teaching people how to treat you. Although initially embarrassed and perhaps annoyed at my snooping, Miranda eventually came around to the idea, mainly because it would let her “help other people who were married to lazy spouses.” Miranda had one of those, and it made for painful living every day. At one point during our discussion, I asked her what she expected to happen when she put her son on her husband’s lap. Miranda’s response? “How can anyone not want to hold their own child? He’s been like this since Drake was born, but doesn’t everyone grow into their child? Their family?” I had news for her. Time alone does not change people. Experience, reflection and desire changes people over time.
Margaret did not like to sit around listening to Tim’s political rants. But listen she did and with a smile. Did she love the idea of watching horror films? Yes, but only because it allowed them to get closer, literally. Margaret scared easily, at least when it came to demons, ghosts and cannibalization. What scared her more however was the thought of a continued life with someone that did not give reciprocally. You see, while she was happy to put aside her own preferences for the sake of Tim, he did not return the favor. Ever. Ever ever. In fact, at one point he told her that she should not want him to do things he does not like doing because she should want him to be happy. Margaret still had hope. Eventually he would come around, right? After all, he must realize how one-sided the give and take is. This was certainly Margaret’s view before she finally walked out the door on account of his persistent selfishness.
Miranda and Margaret were both victims of the belief that people will change over time, because of time. How could one person love another and bear witness to their suffering without eventually coming to? Miranda’s husband would have to see the error in his ways, right? Perhaps, but seeing the errors and doing something about them requires some very basic ingredients of the human condiition.
Reflection: We may see and experience so many things we say and do but until we reflect on what they are, how they affect ourselves and the effect they have on others, they will be lost experiences.
Desire: Reflecting on those things we say and do may yield some obvious and actionable steps and changes but we must have the desire to see them through. Otherwise, they are empty reflections.
When they approached their partners about these challenges, each one acknowledged that they needed to change and committed to doing so. Now, I would like to leave you the same basic thoughts I left with Miranda and Margaret on how to handle these committments.
Don’t just give it time. When you need to see a change in someone else, make sure you are balancing the time that passes with iterative changes that you can see and feel. Otherwise, the days, months and years will pass and you will continue hanging onto hope. However, hope is not a plan.
Look for their reflection. When they agree it’s an area of needed improvement, you have every right to have a conversation with your partner about the challenges they are working on. Ask them why is it important for them to change. If you know their motivation, you can support their progress. When they give you that first response, go deeper by asking more questions with compassion. If you get nothing more than surface answers or, worse yet, defensiveness, you have a decision to make. Are they truly reflective of their errors? Are they truly willing to look within themselves to understand what went wrong and how they contributed to it?
Feel their desire. When someone has screwed up and they want to make amends, their desire to do so should seep through their pores. The words heartfelt and obvious should come to mind, and you will know if they resonate with you. Simply put, if you cannot feel their desire to change, you will feel like any promise to do so was little more than empty words.
Only you decide how much time you give someone to make a needed change, and only reflection and desire can make that time meaningful.