Can a Leopard Change its Spots?

Changing personal belief systems, narratives of how one sees the world, is the last thing that most people would think could be beneficial. Individuals have an implicit set of beliefs that organize their perceptions of the world and ground their reality, particularly how they see themselves and others. These beliefs are woven into the fabric of their identity. Like a map, it delineates the psycho-emotional geography of interpersonal space. To give up these beliefs is equivalent to asking a person to surrender their identity or a leopard to change its spots. Yet these beliefs are often what cause and perpetuate interpersonal conflict, and ironically stand in the way of realizing one’s deeper self.

Personal beliefs are a product of unconscious and conscious factors strongly influenced by interactions with parents and significant others across development. However flattering it is to assume that we are the architects of our beliefs, they are not simply ideas one picks off a shelf. They are cognitive-emotional complexes embedded so deeply in our being that they seem hard-wired into our brains.

While many psychological qualities exist on a continuum between rigidity and malleability, stressful life situations can activate recurrent, rigid emotional reactions, the default of our being-in-the-world. Such reactions are most apparent in intimate relationships.

After listening to many couples describe their difficulties in couples therapy, I am no longer surprised by how differently each individual in the couple sees the relationship.  Usually couples therapy begins as a tale of two relationships. These tales are often organized around unrecognized psychological pain and trauma, the baggage that individuals bring into relationships. Many individuals unwittingly see their world through a wound-broken lens that is dissociated from its painful origins. Each new insult or disappointment is experienced as a virgin insult. The hard work of therapy when successful leads to a narrative that transforms the two stories into a shared third that recognizes the pain at the heart of the difficulty.

Jessica Benjamin (1), a contemporary psychoanalytic theorist, describes how most relationships struggle with mutual recognition. Mutual recognition depends on the ability of two individuals to recognize, accept, and appreciate each other’s subjectivity, i.e. their differences. It involves each individual managing the conflict between assertion of self and recognition of the other. The crux of the conflict is simple: the person who we need recognition from is also the person who needs recognition from us.  Couples need to learn how to share their subjectivities.

In other words to get a little, we need to give a little. Or to quote Lennon and McCartney, “And in the end, the love you take

is equal to the love you make.” This simple principle that is taught in preschools seems so difficult for adults to practice in their intimate relationships and seems almost contrary to human nature. One only has to look at the level of violent, unrelenting cruelty for evidence.

What makes this lesson taught in preschool so difficult for adults to incorporate into their close relationships? So much of our psychological energy is devoted to the development of our individuality, giving voice to our uniqueness, worrying about and protecting our self-worth. To this end, we sacrifice relational skills. From the narrow perspective of the self, relationships are challenging and potentially threatening. We want to be liked, validated, and respected for our ideas and opinions, especially by the people closest to us.  Our need for love is intertwined with our need recognition on our terms. This need for recognition stands in conflict with our partner’s need to be recognized.  When push comes to shove, when identity seems on the line, most individuals either push back or retreat: fight or flight. And this battle line is often drawn around the most inconsequential issues.

Many relationships that struggle with mutual recognition go through repeated cycles of break down and repair without learning from experience.  Benjamin describes the breakdown of mutuality in terms of complimentary or “doer-done to” relationships. In “doer-done to” relationships each person feels unable to gain the other’s recognition, and feels misunderstood, devalued, and judged, in other words, “done to” by the other.  Ironically, both individuals occupy the same position without recognizing how they are “doing-to” their partner what they feel their partner is doing to them.

The resolution of this impasse challenges the self to change perspective: its narrative of self and other that is deeply woven into the cloak of identity. Making such changes often feels like surrendering power. A complaint I have heard from clients who are frustrated with their spouse criticisms is “This is the way I am. She/he wants me to change who I am!”

Intimate relationships present an opportunity for self-transformation.  Psychological development hinges on the individual’s ability to balance autonomy with dependence, assertion of self with recognition of the other, and assimilation of the new with accommodation of the old.  The idea of the autonomous individual is a cultural construct that doesn’t recognize the value of inter-dependence.

  1. Jessica Benjamin has written extensively about mutual recognition and psychoanalytic theory. Her writing style is dense and complicated, but worth the effort. To read her directly, go to “Recognition and destruction” is a chapter from her book Like Subjects, Love Objects: Essays on Recognition and Sexual Difference. (1995) New Haven: Yale University Press.


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Larry Brooks, PhD

Licensed Clinical Psychologist
License # PSY 8161

138 N. Brand #300
Glendale, CA 91203
(818) 243-0839


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