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Stop Asking Why People Won’t Change

Humans are meaning-making creatures with built-in curiosity about people and the world to help us survive and thrive by learning new behaviors and putting new ideas into practice. One kind of persistent answer-seeking that is regressive is wondering why someone doesn’t or won’t change. Though you may feel dismayed or dissatisfied because my explanation isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, it’s still the truth, one which you eventually will need to accept to become emotionally healthy.

Let’s say that Mom regularly invalidates your thoughts and feelings, insisting that you think and feel as she does, or she becomes angry. You try hard to explain yourself over and over, but she still acts as if what your saying makes no sense or is wrong. So, you ask her repeatedly, “Why don’t you understand me?” or ask yourself, “What can I do to get her to understand me?” Nothing. Not a darn thing. Your mother doesn’t want to understand you. I have no doubt that other people, even many or most people might like to, but your mother’s limits due to her history make it too painful for her to take in what you have to say. It hurts her or will cause her emotional distress if she acknowledges your differences. Her invalidation isn’t because your explanation isn’t clear as a bell or wrong. It’s because who she has become due to her life doesn’t allow her to accept the truth. Like all of us, she is a product of what has happened to her.

Or, say your husband is emotionally abusive though you’ve told him that his behavior is unacceptable to you more times than you can count. You’ve said so in sessions with a few different therapists and in private nearly every day of your long marriage. You ask him, “Why won’t you change and stop being abusive?” or ask yourself, “Why does he continue to abuse me?” The answer is that he has no interest in changing even if he pretends that he does. He gets pleasure or satisfaction out of it and doesn’t care what you feel. That is the answer to why he remains abusive. It’s not that you deserve abuse. It happens because you keep asking the (wrong) question: Why does he do this? The answer is that his abuse isn’t about you. It’s due to how he turned out, lacking empathy and enjoying inflicting pain on people feel powerful. The real question is why you keep trying to change him rather than accept that this is who he is and (likely) always will be.

The fact that we only can change ourselves is hardly news, but (no matter how often we hear it) we each need to have that ah-ha moment of recognition of this truth and accept that someone can and will remain exactly as (awful as) they are. When we recognize this fact, we can stop asking why it is so and start asking what we can do to better manage or, if possible, leave the relationship.



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