I love you (just not the way you are)

It's an age-old story: boy meets girl, they fall for each other – then she sets about trying to turn him into someone else. Alice-Azania Jarvis wonders what's really going on

What would have become of Shane Warne had his new fiancée Elizabeth Hurley not come along? Would the blond bombshell of international cricket have continued along the path he had taken, gradually becoming less and less svelte, more and more red-faced, his hair bearing an ever-greater resemblance to a distressed hamster? Or would he have changed tack, somehow: lost the weight, gained a dress sense, aged gracefully?

The answer is unlikely to be what has, in fact, happened to the alpha Australian in the wake of Hurley's involvement. Warne has become virtually unrecognisable, a million smart suits and tubs of moisturiser away from the unreformed bachelor of yore. With his slicked-back hair, colour co-ordinated golfing ensembles and lean frame, he resembles less a retired cricketer and more a rosy-cheeked Ken doll. His face, once puffy and weather-beaten, is these days smooth and shiny. He looks like he might be wearing makeup. It is an improvement, of sorts – and it appears to have been matched by a change in persona.

Not only is the soon-to-be Mr Hurley better turned out, but he's better behaved, too, clutching bottles of mineral water where once there might have been beer, squiring Hurley around the London social scene. Witness the speed with which he is attempting to make an honest woman of her, proposing just months after they first met. Just over a year ago, bookies would have taken good money that this was a man who would never marry again.

It is, of course, entirely possible that Warne's metamorphosis is organic. Since meeting Hurley, he might have seen the light, realised the true joys of a low-carb diet and decided to pursue longevity by way of the vegetable aisle. But the odds are slim. Just like Warne's new trousers. Far more likely is that Hurley has gone where a million other women have before. She has embarked on the quest to change her man – without having to exchange him. "It's actually a remarkably common thing," Mandy Kloppers, a relationship counsellor, says. "We all do it to a degree. We always try – even when there are things we know we can't change. Frequently we fall in love with the person our partner could be, rather than who they are now."

Women's attempts to change their loved ones "for the better" are so much an accepted part of relationships that it gets discussed openly. Men own up to embarking on a diet after their girlfriends point out the extra pounds; when celebrities execute these makeovers, it elicits murmurs of admiration (see Jennifer Aniston's alleged transformation of Justin Theroux, which has, tabloids report, left him feeling "totally positive" about life). There are all sorts of ways in which we might try to change our mate, Kloppers says. It could be superficial – we don't like their manners or their habits around the house (the latter, she says, is one of the biggest bugbears she encounters and the solution almost always lies in improved communication). But it could also be more deep-rooted, attempting to change the way that person fundamentally is.

"I see a lot of couples where the wife doesn't like her partner spending time pursuing his hobbies – playing golf or watching sport," she says. "Another problem can be their difference in personalities – she is more social, say, and he is more of a homebody. Financially, if one partner is earning less, that can cause trouble, too."

Frequently, these attempts at amelioration are benign. Nothing to worry about. The fact that Theroux has ditched the dodgy glasses and is suddenly looking rather dashing in a leather jacket is hardly going to prompt a break-up. But not every change is for the better, Dr. Becky Spelman, a psychologist, says. "Motivation to change must come from the individuals themselves when they are ready in order for behaviour change to take place," she says.

Kloppers agrees: "In extreme cases, pushing someone to change can even be a kind of abuse, eroding their self esteem." It can even, Spelman warns, risk removing the reasons you found your partner attractive in the first place. "In new relationships the person who starts to change at their partner's demand will actually start to appear less attractive to their new partner."

So why do we do it? Why don't we find someone we don't want to change? "Often, we are projecting our own lack of self-esteem on to that person," Kloppers says. "Our partner is a reflection of us and we might have certain preconceived ideas as to how they should behave. By changing someone, you create the sense of being needed, which can be rewarding. It's very easy to go into denial about it, and become blind to what's really going on in the relationship. And if that's the case – well, you're just setting yourself up to fail."

Changing faces – and fashion sense

Elizabeth Hurley and Shane Warne

The former international cricketer is virtually unrecognisable in his new guise, but insists he is happy with the change. "I am eating very healthily and am flattered that people think I look younger," Warne tweeted in July. "I feel great and have never been happier in my life."

Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux

The Friends actor's love life is a permanent fixture of celebrity gossip magazines. So the response when her latest partner, fellow actor Justin Theroux, metamorphosed from bearded rebel to clean-shaven pin-up was not hugely surprising.

Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas

The Welsh actress looked likely to be just another of Douglas's conquests when the couple began dating in 1999. But Jones proved a moderating influence. She reportedly made the self-confessed sex addict wait nine months before consenting to go to bed with him. More than a decade later, they are still together.

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes

Curiously, when a man is seen to be changing his partner it tends to be perceived in more sinister light. Witness the conspiracy theories that swirl around Tom Cruise's marriage to Katie Holmes. The formerly fun-loving girl next door has undergone a sobering transformation into a kind of Stepford Scientologist.

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