Your once sort of neat partner becomes a sloppy mess. Or they start spending more time on the golf course. Or worse, when you first met they wanted to have children, but now say they’re not interested.
What do you do when your partner changes in small or big ways?
Here, Terri Orbuch, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and author of5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, offers her insight on change in relationships.
Myths about Change
It’s a myth that people or relationships don’t change, Orbuch said. In fact, it’s inevitable. Relationships go through different developmental stages and situations, such as job loss, health problems, financial issues and family conflict. So it’s natural for changes to occur.
Another myth, according to Orbuch, is that change is bad. So many of us hear the word “change,” and we automatically assume the worst. But change can be positive and an “exciting influence on your relationship.”
“When you add something new, which is what a change really is, you can add romance and passion to your relationship.” Orbuch recommended that readers switch their approach and realize that all change doesn’t have to have negative implications.
Dealing with Small Changes
Small changes can be anything from your partner taking on a new hobby to being increasingly disorganized. Small changes can become small annoyances, too.
And interestingly, some of these changes aren’t changes at all. Your partner probably has always been a bit on the sloppy side; it’s just that now you’re noticing this habit. You’re simply seeing your partner differently (which usually happens after the honeymoon period has passed). Also helpful is taking “responsibility for how we’re seeing the annoyance or situation,” Orbuch said.
Orbuch’s long-term study of married couples found that it’s important to sweat these small annoyances before they turn into big obstacles. If certain things bother you, bring them up using “I” statements and addressing “them in a positive, [non-defensive] and respectful way.”
For example, you love watching previews at the movies but always end up missing them thanks to your partner’s late arrival. Instead of unleashing a storm of frustration, you might say, “I’m having a difficult time with standing at the movie theater and missing the first 10 minutes. Is there some way we can change that, so I can see the previews because I love to watch them?”
Dealing with Big Changes
At the core, big changes represent a direct contradiction to your own thoughts or values, which is what makes them so difficult to swallow. For instance, your spouse might’ve wanted kids before you got married but now has changed his or her mind. Or your partner once held conservative beliefs and now is becoming more liberal. Or you both dreamed of raising kids in a rural area but now your partner prefers an urban lifestyle. Or your spouse who’s the CEO of a company wants to go back to school to become a teacher.
Orbuch encourages couples to “discuss how much this difference or big change impacts each of you separately and impacts your relationship.” This helps to figure out if you’re OK with the change and how you’re going to deal with it.
Reaching a compromise is one way. “Compromise can mean different things to different people.” It might mean going with your partner’s desires this time, your desires or meeting in the middle, she said.
There are “endless possibilities.” In other words, there are tons of solutions. For example, a wife may be deeply worried about being pregnant and giving birth. So the couple might consider everything from surrogacy to adoption. Or maybe she’s worried about being a good mother. So they try being foster parents first, and she realizes that she is a nurturing person and wants to have kids of her own.
Another way to deal with a big change is to “work on accepting the difference” and “not taking it personally.” For instance, your spouse leaning toward liberal views isn’t an affront to your more conservative philosophies. And it’s fine for some topics to be taboo for a couple. It’s something you don’t talk about so much because you know it brings conflict.
If You’re Stuck…
If you’re stuck, take some time to self-reflect, Orbuch suggested. Often we’re so adamant about a certain point of view but we aren’t really sure why. Exploring what an issue means to you is important.
She also recommended getting a third party involved, whether that’s family, friends or a therapist. They can help you “ask different questions and think about the issue in a different way…We create different meanings as we talk to others.”
For instance, say a husband doesn’t want to have kids anymore, which is all he can articulate. After seeing a therapist, he realizes that it has little to do with wanting kids and more to do with his own insecurities about his job and providing for his family. His own childhood, which consisted of little affection, also makes him question whether he’ll be a good father. “There are so many issues tied to the possibility of not wanting children,” Orbuch said. Together, you can try to work through these issues. But it takes communicating, possibly “unpacking the baggage from childhood,” support and empathy.
Lastly, “Look at the importance of the relationship and the importance of this issue.” In other words, “Make a determination about how important this issue is to you versus your relationship.” Of course, this isn’t a decision to be made quickly or lightly, Orbuch added, but one you make over time with thoughtful consideration.
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