Why Do We Try To ‘Fix’ People In Our Relationships?

Read this if you relate to Taylor Swift’s new song “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can).”
Taylor Swift's new song "I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)" resonates for a few key reasons.
Graham Denholm/TAS24 via Getty Images
Taylor Swift's new song "I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)" resonates for a few key reasons.

The title of one of Taylor Swift’s songs on her newest album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” is enough to draw many listeners in simply for its relatability: “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can).”

The urge to “fix” someone or change their behaviour — as well as the assurance that we’ll be successful — is a real phenomenon many of us have experienced in all kinds of relationships.

I doubt she’s the only one who felt able to be someone’s “saviour,” knowing just what they needed to be “fixed.” Maybe you’re dating someone who gets angry a bit too easily, and you think you know just the way to calm them down. Or there’s the acquaintance who describes themselves as “broken” and “lost,” and you’ve got just the right words to say. And maybe you do, maybe you don’t.

Either way, like Swift, you might feel like you’re the person who can “fix” a certain someone else. You may even feel a deep and strong urge to work on them … even when it only comes back to bite you.

What’s the psychology behind this, and can it work? Here’s why we do it and what else to know:

It makes you feel good about yourself.

Helpful or not, feeling like we’re “fixing” someone can admittedly feel good at times.

“Oftentimes, people who develop patterns of trying to ‘fix’ others do so as a coping mechanism,” said Sydney Gomez, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks in Colorado Springs who specialises in relationships, stress and self-esteem (and is a Swiftie). “These individuals may derive a sense of purpose or value from their ability to help others. At times, this is done to counteract deeper seeded feelings of worthlessness or insecurity.”

And that’s not a bad thing on the surface, she continued — but it can become an unhelpful, codependent dynamic. In other words, it can create situations in which you only feel OK when they feel OK.

Gomez added that this dynamic often stems from childhood or adolescent experiences. That might entail being handed more responsibility than was developmentally appropriate, receiving praise for being “the easy kid,” or hearing (implicitly or explicitly) that others’ needs always come first.

It gives you a sense of control.

It’s understandable you want to grasp for control in a world where we often feel so powerless to the pain, violence and undesirable circumstances that are ever-present right now. You want to fix what you can. You want to help others. That’s admirable.

“Many of us want to be in control of a situation and change something about another person that we deem is ‘wrong’ or ‘broken’ about them,” said Nicholette Leanza, a therapist at LifeStance Health.

But the intentions and implications can be hurtful and unhelpful. Leanza said trying to “fix” someone can imply they’re deficient or dysfunctional; it assumes “the fixer” knows what’s best for the person better than they know for themselves. (Hence why “fix” is in quotations.) This can create a hierarchy and sense of “being better than,” which doesn’t help anybody.

It helps you feel safe.

That sense of control can also help you feel more powerful and comfortable. Gomez said this can be especially present for individuals who are in a chaotic or unstable environment. By fixing, they feel like they’re playing an active role; they may feel like they have a “say,” so to speak, over what happens (or doesn’t happen).

“Many of us want to be in control of a situation and change something about another person that we deem is ‘wrong’ or ‘broken’ about them.”

- Nicholette Leanza

Can (And Should) You Try To ‘Fix’ Someone?

The answer to this question is pretty clear-cut, according to these therapists. “People cannot be fixed,” Gomez said.

Ultimately, change must start internally. “Someone cannot be ‘fixed’ unless they agree — or want — to be fixed,” Leanza said. “People will only change through their own motivation to do so.”

Not only is trying to fix someone undoable, but it can also be harmful. “Trying to ‘fix’ people is a dangerous game as it often leads to an unhealthy relationship dynamic and an abandonment of self,” Gomez continued.

The line can be blurry, though. What’s the difference between helping someone and trying to fix them?

It comes down to two factors: boundaries and effort. “In the case of fixing, the ‘fixer’ will likely feel a tremendous amount of responsibility for the outcome of the situation,” Gomez said. “They will also feel their emotions fluctuate strongly based on how their partner is doing because they are so emotionally dependent on deriving value from that identity as ‘the helper.’” (So, back to the point on codependence.)

“Trying to ‘fix’ people is a dangerous game as it often leads to an unhealthy relationship dynamic and an abandonment of self.”

- Syndey Gomez

What To Do Instead

Instead of focusing on fixing someone, therapists say these methods can help:

Engage in self-reflection.

Take a moment to step back and think: Why am I trying to “fix” this person? What is it making me feel? What might be more helpful for me?

“Understanding [your] own needs, as well as alternative ways to meet those that do not include fixing, is key,” Gomez said.

It might be easier said than done, so be patient and compassionate with yourself. “Identifying personal needs and feelings is also a skill that may be underdeveloped if this dynamic stems from childhood,” she added.

Remind yourself of what a good, healthy relationship looks like.

Ultimately, most (if not all) of us are looking for a satisfying relationship — and feeling the need to fix the other person is not a great sign.

“The healthiest relationships happen when two whole people choose to join their lives, not when one person tries to craft their ideal partner out of the other,” Leanza said. “If you feel the need to ‘fix’ someone to make them dateable, they simply may not be the right partner for you.”

Support the person’s desire to change.

As mentioned above, true change requires an internal desire to do so — but that doesn’t mean you can’t help at all. Gomez listed options such as providing a safe space to share their emotions, validating their progress, and supporting them in their proposed solutions.

She also wanted to be clear that this tip isn’t one to try when the person is violent (and that includes emotionally). “If the concern in question is violence in any form, the person in the fixer role should immediately assure their own safety and seek support for interpersonal violence situations,” she said.

Remember the importance of self-love and self-care.

Fixers aren’t used to focusing on themselves at all — and perhaps for that reason, it may be just the thing they need. Remember, as author Eleanor Brownn said, self-care isn’t selfish.

Leanza encouraged being the right partner for yourself. So again, what do you need? Maybe a partner or friend who can support you as much as you support them. Maybe it’s a relationship where you can be yourself and just relax and laugh. Take some time to reflect on this, too.

Create a strong support system.

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to go through this alone. Allow others to support you ― you deserve it.

“Stepping out of the role of a fixer is difficult,” Gomez said. She cited examples of setting boundaries and consistently upholding them — two hard tasks.

“Building a support network can be incredibly helpful for both partners in this dynamic,” she said.

That network may include friends, family, people at your place of faith or other trusted loved ones. It may include finding a therapist as well.

“Working with a professional may be helpful in uncovering the deeper drives of the fixing behaviour and get to the root cause of the pattern,” Gomez said.

While a professional can be helpful for individual challenges, don’t forget they can treat couples, too. “If there are issues you believe can be worked through and there’s room for compromise, consider couples counselling,” Leanza said.

Losing that sense of control and purpose may be scary and upsetting ― and it’s probably your best move. Swift summed up the main point well in the last line of the song: “I can fix him, no, really I can … Whoa, maybe I can’t.”