Changing Yourself for Your Lover: The Psychology of Behavioral Interdependence

“I better shape up, ’cause you need a man I need a man who can keep me satisfied I better shape up, if I’m gonna prove You better prove that my faith is justified.”

Growing up, I wanted to be Sandy. Obsessed doesn’t begin to explain my childhood relationship with the movie Grease. Played on repeat again and again, my parents still deny they had any part in the spontaneous breakage of both the VHS and CD soundtrack…

I idolized the leading lady, Sandy. I wanted her accent, her shiny blonde hair, her poodle skirts, her John Travolta. My barbies were Sandy, my dog was Sandy, hell I was Sandy for Halloween several years running.

But even as a child, I was always bothered by the end of the movie. As she pranced out in the final scene with stark makeup, permed hair, sexy black leggings, a newly adopted smoking habit, and a bad girl attitude, I knew something wasn’t right…

Was this what I had to do to win the man? To win the heart of Danny Zuko?

Fast forward a few years, boyfriends, and relational misjudgments later, and I find myself captivated with Diane Von Furstenberg’s autobiography The Woman I Wanted to Be. Trust me, this was not a book I planned to like. Given her status as a princess, fashion icon, philanthropist, and author, I have tremendous respect for her full-disclosure approach, particularly when it comes to relationships. I’m so in awe of her honesty because it’s not particularly flattering to her self-concept.

Like Sandy, she changed herself for relationships. Again and again and again.

“I think most women consciously change their stripes or at least modify them in their relationships with men, especially during the delicious period of seduction. They become instant football lovers or sailing enthusiasts or political junkies, then taper back to their own personalities when the relationship is either cemented or over. No one I know, however, went to the lengths I did.”


For background, this is the woman credited with creating the classic wrap-dress. Despite this remarkable accomplishment, she abandoned her dresses and independent NY lifestyle for sarongs, exotic jewelry, and life on a beach during her four year fling with a Balinese man. Similarly, during her relationship with a Parisian man, she became his muse wearing only button-up sweaters, flats, and wool skirts whilst hosting literary salons.

Psychologist Harold Kelley termed this act of adopting your partners’ lifestyle, habits, and actions behavioral interdependence.  It sounds negative, but behavioral interdependence isn’t all bad. In successful relationships, partners make some degree of behavioral transformation to align with their mate. You wake up earlier, take gluten out of your diet, limit your time in stretchy pants, put the lid on the toothpaste — you know, little adjustments that make life easier. I began to wonder: What’s the root cause of this interdependence? Why do some, like fictional Sandy and real-life DVF, undergo massive metamorphoses, while others maintain their solid self-concept? What are the consequences of changing yourself for love?

Cue insights from the not-so glamorous investor, businessman, lawyer, and VP of Berkshire Hathaway, Charlie Munger.

In his fascinating essay, The Psychology of Human Misjudgment, he outlines a variety of behavioral trends encountered in his work. One that applies brilliantly to our love-sick leading ladies is the Liking/Loving Tendency:

1) we ignore faults of, and comply with wishes of, the object of affection

2) we favor people, products, and actions merely associated with the object of affection

3) we distort other facts to facilitate love

And if we’re honest, who hasn’t done this? We unquestioningly take on our lovers’ friends, explain away potential addictions, overlook obsessions and neuroses, and find ourselves doing uncharacteristic things to maintain the love.

Another consequence of this tendency, of course, is that we change more than behavior — we change ourselves.

As Munger puts it, “deliberate self-destruction to help what is loved.” There seem to be varying levels of sensitivity to the Liking/Loving Tendency; while some of us remain stalwart and resistant to change in relationships, others let ourselves, quite literally, get carried away by love. By ignoring the faults in our partner and favoring them by default, we essentially cheat on ourselves.

So what’s the take-away here? 

Diane Von Furstenberg admitted that her children labeled her “boring” during her forays into alternate personas. She was no longer Diane, she was someone’s partner. Between relationships, and in her current, healthy relationship, she reverted to the person she always was. Same clothes, same independence, same passion. I’m certain if Sandy was a real person, she would have gone back to poodle skirts and doe eyes after a hot, heavy, and short-lived fling with Danny.

True to the principles of the universe, what comes up must come down. What swings pathologically to an extreme will always try to return to homeostasis. We can never untruthfully changes our selves for too long, without internal alarms for normalcy sounding. Examples like Diane are proof that we have a stable, yearning core – one that remains loyal despite personal infidelity.

To my knowledge, Harold Kelley and Charlie Munger never sat down for a beer. Nor have they applied their theories to our princess or movie star. Nor would they posit these observations only apply to women (men, take note). But they’d likely have a lot of opinions about romantic relationships, the dangers of blind loyalty, and the always bad idea to be unfaithful to your self-concept…

While you can always re-find yourself, it might be easier to never leave. 

And don’t be this person…

“I know I’m just a fool who’s willin’ To sit around and wait for you But baby, can’t you see There’s nothin’ else for me to do. I’m hopelessly devoted to you”

– Sandy

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