Improve Your Gal?

A woman often marries a man for his potential. If women married men for who they actually were, there would be far fewer marriages. When a woman loves a man, she says to herself, ‘I could improve him. Once we’re together, things will be different.’ Since I began my [couples therapy] practice in 1977, I’ve heard this refrain hundreds of times. I try to get it across to the woman that what she sees is what she gets. This is him. …

Men tend to resist change. In fact, one of the most prized characteristics of a man’s friendship with other men is total acceptance. When a woman begins to encourage a man to live up to his potential, he misunderstands that as her overall dissatisfaction with him. … The man may initially improve according to her recommendations — remember, he has a lot invested in what she thinks of him. But over time, he becomes slower to respond. …

When the marriage is on the brink of breakup, the woman drags him into my office. That’s when I hear what almost any therapist can tell you is the most repeated phrase among men: “No matter what I do, I can never please this woman.” (more)

I have many questions:  Why don’t men try as hard to improve their women?  Is it that he cares less what she will become, or would she more resist the pressure to change?  If he cares less, is this because men peak later in life, and we care more about our spouses qualities near their peak than their trough?  If she resists more, is this because example the median woman is more dominant, the median man more submissive?  Is the above pattern world-wide, or mainly in the US?

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  • kebko

    I think this has it backwards a bit. For men, among each other, challenges and judgments are a sign of affection & respect. We are much nastier to our closest male friends than we would be to those we dislike.
    Women, on the other hand, tend to be supportive of close friends, but judgmental of those they dislike. So judgment from a woman is taken as a sign of disrespect.
    When I have heard women say terribly judgmental things about other women they disliked, I have noticed that those things sounded precisely like things only my closest male friends would say to me. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to convince a woman that this was actually the case.
    The best times of my life have been where another man interpreted my actions in the worst possible way & others laughed & cajoled me in response to it. For a man that is complete acceptance. But there are only a few women we can treat this way, and most women can’t treat us this way unless they have demonstrated that they can partake in that sort of counterintuitive camaraderie.

    • Jordan

      I think this is the most likely explanation. In my experience, both men and women hypocritically want to improve their partners without accepting advice themselves; men just give up because women get more offended by the advice, so there’s a stereotype that only women do it.

      A couple weeks ago I had a long conversation re: women changing men with my mother, and we came to the conclusion that a woman considering a relationship should recognize that people can change, but there’s nothing special about you personally that’s going to single-handedly change him for the better (read: to more adaptive behaviors) when the sum total of his life experiences with all people ever couldn’t get him there.

  • It may be less possible to improve women in ways that matter – beauty is relatively fixed and women have excellent incentives to already know the few ways they can modify it. Male status takes more concerted effort to achieve and therefore outside prodding is likely to be more effective.

    Male attempts to encourage domesticity in their wives can be seen as improving, but this is much easier to resist. Balking women can claim the mantle of feminism, rather than just laziness (which is all men can do to resist wifely prodding.)

    • Taxman


  • A dude

    It has to be due to different time horizons. Women’s longer horizon is related to the time it takes to raise a child, so they think there is time to improve their men. Men’s horizon is related to the time it takes to inseminate the women, too short to make any improvements in their mate.

  • Sigmund

    Women are most attracted to men with high-status dominance characteristics. The men they marry are probably somewhat more submissive than women would like (thus their need to change them). Unfortunately, if a man complies with the woman’s efforts to change him, it actually decreases his status and makes him less attractive to the woman. Thus the vicious circle of submissive men not being able to please their wives, and wives “dragging them in for therapy” where they blame the man’s behavior for their fading passion and subconscious desire to seek out a more dominant mate.

    • I don’t know how accurate that actually is, but the Onion had a funny article on it.

  • Jess Riedel

    Does the naive evolutionary reasoning not work here? A woman’s chief biological benefit to a man–her ability to produce children–is fixed, but a man’s biological benefits to a woman–his ability to gather food, influence the tribe, secure resources for their offspring, etc.–can be influenced. Sure the dichotomy isn’t perfect, but isn’t it enough to explain the observation?

  • Ben

    Robin, who are you citing here? What are his academic credentials? Shouldn’t your first question be: is any of this theory actually reliable? Clinical therapists are notoriously bad at extrapolating behavior trends to the general public because their sample is highly biased.

    Twenty-six years of counseling men and couples have given Jay Carter an unusually clear window into men’s hearts and minds.

    No, they haven’t. They’ve given him insight into a small sample size of men who’ve gone to therapy in a particular geographic region‘s hearts and minds.

    • michael vassar

      I had the exact same response. The anecdote doesn’t match my impressions of life at all.

      • Matches my life pretty well. I’ve told my wife I’ll have the best relationship I can with her, but it totally chap my arse that she seems to endemically see me as highly flawed. Without the 12 & 11 year olds, I don’t think it would be worth even trying to stay.

    • Jess Riedel

      I agree with this criticism. But let’s ignore the colorful descriptions and unjustified theorizing in the quote. Does anyone actually dispute the claim that wives spend more time trying to change their husbands’ behavior outside the realm of inter-marital interactions than husbands do with their wives?

      • Ben

        What behavior is outside the realm of inter-marital interactions? Isn’t the definition of marriage to make all behavior inside this realm?

      • Jess Riedel

        What behavior is outside the realm of inter-marital interactions? Isn’t the definition of marriage to make all behavior inside this realm?

        No, what I mean is this. Wives and husbands probably both try to groom each other to be more pleasant to be around on a day-to-day basis. (Actually, I suspect that even in this area, wives have more complaints than husbands, although I won’t defend that claim here). But I think most will agree that wives are much more concerned about how their husbands perform publicly–in terms of career, appearance to non-family members, etc.–than vice versa.

        The interesting question would be “is this state of affairs do solely to the fact that men in our society happen to have more influence with a family’s public standing (since more men are employed in higher positions, etc.), or are there innate biological reasons (caused by ancestral roles played by women and men) that would continue to lead women to be more concerned with their husband’s public performance regardless of how society structured?” My guess is that it’s mostly a product of current societal structure, but I would also be surprised if genetics had little (or a reverse) effect.

  • Mark Rutherford

    Schopenhauer answered this question 150 years ago, by pointing out that without her perceived perfection in the eyes of a man, no man in his right mind would ever consider marriage (of course he was wrong, wrong wrong about this, in my view!):
    With girls, Nature has had in view what is called in a dramatic sense a “striking effect,” for she endows them for a few years with a richness of beauty and a, fulness of charm at the expense of the rest of their lives; so that they may during these years ensnare the fantasy of a man to such a degree as to make him rush into taking the honourable care of them, in some kind of form, for a lifetime—a step which would not seem sufficiently justified if he only considered the matter

    • Aron

      This comment led me to this:

      I found it rather entertaining. Ol schop doggy dogg was a real charmer. I can’t help but think he is directionally correct and only off on magnitudes.

      What would we do if genders were even more genetically disparate than they are now?

  • I think they do — but women respond quickly and aggressively to suggestion and pressure from many people (we are pleasers) — and especially to our mates.

    • Ben

      This seems reasonable. When looking at relationships outside the context of those specific marriages that end up in couples therapy, there’s a great extent to which both men and women work quite hard to help their spouse improve themselves/reach their potential. Some of these efforts are both effective and appreciated by the spouse. Others aren’t, and sometimes the relationship fails as a result. But there’s no reason to think, based on the evidence provided, that wives try harder to improve their husbands than vice versa.

  • bcg

    I think there are two answers: The first is that, because of the glass ceiling, women’s only real method of advancing their lot in life was to get married and support their husband. They had no opportunity to do so without a man. Second, men had no incentive to improve their wife: What’s in it for him?

    Second is that (relatively) recent legal and social developments have given women much more control over the sex spigot and men much less control over the money spigot, giving women a much stronger hand.

  • bcg

    Apologies for double-posting. Men don’t have a strong incentive to make their wife a more attractive mate, because her infidelity doesn’t take very long.

  • Elation

    The questions posed about why a Man works less hard at changing a woman he is with misses the point of the quote. Men, value a person as they are, not what form they can twist them into. “Men tend to resist change. In fact, one of the most prized characteristics of a man’s friendship with other men is total acceptance.” There is a value implied in acceptance with males in her experience. This leads to the schism that she sees. A man feeling he can “never please” the woman as the woman attempts to help the man reach his “full potential.” The implied values are not shared, and therefore the conflict escalates.

  • Why don’t men try as hard to improve their women?

    Well men only care about one thing, but I am surprised that women used to wear girdles more than they do now. That even though research shows that a flat stomach is attractive to men. A flat stomach signals youth and fertility (she is not pregnant). The other stuff, breast implants, face lifts tucks etc. are very expensive perhaps the men value the money more.

    • bluto

      Most plastic surgery looks very little like youthful body parts, fake breasts in particular rarely improve anything but breast size (if there were implants that made 40-50 year old boobs look and feel like large teen breasts they’d likely be very popular with men).

  • mobile

    A woman marries a man hoping he will change, but he never does. A man marries a woman hoping she won’t change, but she always does.

    — Ancient wisdom

  • EricK

    Never try to improve your partner. It is only their flaws which prevented them finding someone better than you.

  • Ted Spradley

    Q: “Why don’t men try as hard to improve their women?”

    A: “one of the most prized characteristics of a man’s friendship […] is total acceptance.”

    • LS

      “Why don’t men try as hard to improve their women?”

      Women don’t like to hear men’s advice; they’d much rather hear sympathy.

  • Joseph K

    I think there are a couple possibilities. On the one hand, I think it’s a difference of what people think of as a partner worth showing off to friends. Women want to be able to show off to their friends that they’ve scored a man who’s wealthy, well-dressed, well-mannered, cultured and so on. Whereas a man just wants to be able to show off a woman who’s beautiful. This leads to different behavior: women try to improve their man, whereas men will tend more often to stray when her looks fade. Relatedly, it could be that women see their men as long term investments, that are worth cultivating, like a house that you own and try to improve, whereas men more often see women as a temporary dwelling, an apartment you don’t want to invest in because you’ll move out of it soon anyways. On the other hand, it might be that men and women both try to change one another, but there is a difference of approach. A woman uses more subtle means, like guilt, withholding sex, selective compliments, criticism, etc. Whereas men will more often use more blunt methods like violence or the threat of violence. They both have the same goal, but the woman’s approach appears more like she’s trying to change him, whereas he just appears to be abusive. It also could be that women are more picky. Since women are much more often choosing among several potential mates whereas men are taking what they can get (and as much of it as they can get), women have higher standards of men. It’d be interesting to see how these dynamics play out in same-sex couples. Are gay men more accepting of one another? Are lesbians constantly trying to change each other? I should also admit that I have made many efforts to change my current fiance and past girlfriend’s too. It’s only a problem when they know you’re doing it. Must learn to be more subtle.

  • JS Allen

    Men don’t try to improve their women; they just discard them and start fresh.

  • For biological-clock reasons, women are more likely than men to feel some urgency about choosing the best currently available spouse rather than waiting for a better one. Therefore women are more likely than men to marry someone less-than-satisfactory, and hence more likely than men to want to change their spouses.

  • The classic line:

    “Men get married hoping that women will stay the same. Women get married hoping men will change.”

    Neither is realistic.

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  • Lucia

    So how many of you believe the theories that you are putting forth to understand Robin’s post? That is, how many of them ring true to your life and may be the lives of your friends? How many of you find yourselves in relationships in which these narratives of male and female play out in the way characterized in the original post?
    Perhaps I am missing the point of a thought experiment; but I feel the need to point out that in the end, men and women are people, and until that can be realized (especially by couple’s therapists) we limit the quality of the partnerships we can have
    Given the historic inequalities between men and women, let’s reevaluate the above situation. Let’s rethink what this female “nagging” and male “acceptance” are about. Do we know that that only way that women are asking men to fulfill their potential is as workers, social climbers, and not as partners that share in each others lives, help one another achieve their potential as individuals or share the responsibilities of keeping a home/having a family? that isn’t made clear. And when men appear to accept their “nagging” wives, what is it that they are accepting? Are they accepting their wives for who they are? Or are they accpeting the status quo in which they can ignore their wives real structural limitations and only see her as a wife rather than as a person with agency and potential herself?
    Again, I think it behooves us to evaluate the theories in Robin’s post by seriously evaluating the realities in which people live and not through theories based on gender norms that limit human potential.
    I hope, for their own sake, that men want more than “one thing”

  • pointless

    Lucia’s comment is typical of thoughtless feminist claptrap. What if some people dismiss the modern trend of increasing feminism and feminization? What if traditional social roles were superior to today’s theorizing although imperfect? What if the leftist tendency to try to ignore centuries of successful learning on human institutions in modern civilization means that the catastrophes of radical egalitarianism, almost all feminisms, socialism, multiculturalism, the blank slate, etc. are all just dead ends in the passage of history. Dead ends that sadly leave human society worse off than before. However, dead ends that are easier to tolerate because farmers have built a modern civilization that allows forager parasites the ability to erode its values in the short run while contributing to greater decline and misery in the long run.

  • Could it be that men are molded to be how they are raised and to just accept life’s plight? Therefore in a more enlightened culture, in response to the traditions of the older, previous generation, men are seeking freedom and a companion in their quest to become “deprogrammed”?

    Then for women, who are programmed to become the domain of a man by older standards, this enlightenment dictates that they, being the freer being, are given the auspices of the determining role?

    In this case it would be nature trumping chauvinistic tradition.

    Between a more reasoned egalitarian relationship and this natural response to the dictatorial patriarchy of kindred souls yearning to be free, this is pretty much a win/win situation,

    As a man, it seems that men are more affixed on being tolerant. In order to be considered acceptable in a general sense. They are struggling with ebbs and flows of their naturally produced steroids, while trying to maintain an at least outwardly cohesive demeanor. Leaving them locked in a struggle with their own aggressive nature. Having someone that can understand them and on whom they can depend as much as reasonably possible, is a major key in self-fulfillment.

    You can read a lot about the importance of fidelity into this given the personal investment of developing a deep understanding of another person.

    Perhaps an innate drive for “overcoming bias” is something more exclusive to the fidelity bond of the male – female relationship.