Relationships naturally change as they grow and develop. Dealing with changes starts with understanding your partner and learning ways to manage differences.
Navigating relationships with intimate partners, friends, and family members is probably one of the most challenging and complex aspects of the human experience.
Although it’s natural for change to happen in a relationship, sometimes it can be difficult for one or both partners to understand why and what to do about it.
The resulting frustration and conflict may make you feel like your relationship issues are impossible to overcome. The good news is, if you spend some time understanding the root causes of relationship change, you can learn ways to work through it together.
Relationships, especially intimate ones, go through several stages as they develop. While this is happening, you and your partner may also experience stressful life events, such as health issues, financial difficulties, and conflict with friends or family members.
Sometimes life events are exciting — like moving to a new location or getting a new job. But even positive stressors can cause relationship problems.
According to research in 2017, stressors can negatively affect relationship satisfaction, whether the stress comes from within the relationship or from outside.
Some changes that occur in relationships are more impactful than others. For example, big changes may include:
- One of you no longer wants to have children.
- Your partner wants to live somewhere you don’t.
- Your significant other realizes they aren’t monogamous, identifies as another gender, or no longer has the same sexual preferences you do.
- Your partner experiences a new physical or mental health condition.
However, sometimes seemingly minor changes can cause a shift in relationships. These include:
- Your partner joins the gym or starts a new hobby.
- One of you makes a new friend.
- You or your partner’s work schedule changes.
- Annoying habits begin to surface for the first time.
Many of these changes simply result from the natural stages a relationship goes through as it evolves. So, it might help to understand what these stages are, and how you might feel as you navigate them.
In general, there are five commonly accepted stages a relationship may go through as it’s progressing.
1. The infatuation or “honeymoon” stage
Intoxicating and all-encompassing, this is the early phase of a relationship when you can’t seem to get enough of each other.
Although the feeling is blissful, this stage is also where both people are on their best behavior — so it may be difficult to see any negative traits in the other. It’s perhaps where the term “blinded by love” originated.
2. The coming together stage
In this stage, you both realize your love for each other and begin to merge your lives. You may announce your partnership to others by posting it on social media and begin to discuss long-term life goals such as marriage or cohabitation.
Here’s where small changes begin to pop up that may mean you and your partner are heading into the next phase of the relationship.
3. The power struggle or disillusionment stage
This stage is hallmarked by natural changes that can be difficult to navigate.
What once was endearing in your mate can become irritating. Differences in values and life goals become apparent, and the love blindness experienced in the infatuation stage is now replaced with 20/20 vision.
Here’s where most couples may begin to doubt everything about the relationship and even question whether it should continue.
4. The commitment stage
Once the rocky road typically endured in the last stage has faded, your relationship may enter a phase of understanding and mutual respect.
You both realize you can’t change the other and also begin to accept your differences. Of course, this stage isn’t immune to challenges brought on by life stressors, but you and your partner are now better equipped to handle them as they appear.
5. The co-creation stage
As time goes on and your relationship has weathered a few storms, a sense of collaboration takes over. As a dedicated team, you and your partner understand each other and begin to take on the world together.
This stage isn’t without its challenges. However, a 2014 study investigating couple longevity suggests couples are less likely to break up the longer they’ve been together.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing when a relationship changes — depending on how you or your partner handle it.
Sometimes changes are good, like getting a new job or making healthy lifestyle choices like joining a gym.
Despite being a positive change, you can have a hard time adapting to any type of change.
For instance, your partner’s promotion at work may be inherently a welcomed change, but it also comes with long work hours. If you or your partner are having a hard time with this new schedule, it can cause strain in the relationship.
Some changes, however, aren’t always good.
For example, suppose your partner was loving and attentive at the beginning of the relationship but, over time, becomes abusive. This negative change can affect the relationship at its core.
If your partner has changed in a way that causes you emotional or physical harm in any way, consider reevaluating your relationship to determine if it’s no longer a safe situation for you.
If something is suddenly different in your relationship — big or small — here are a few tips to help you navigate it successfully.
Investigate possible reasons for the change
Certain changes in you or your partner can be a sign that they’re developing a physical or mental health condition like depression. If you suspect this is the case, consider approaching them with empathy and asking if there’s something you can do to help.
In other cases, your partner’s behavioral changes might not be a change at all. Instead, it may be something they’ve always done, but now — for whatever reason — it’s starting to irritate you.
In this case, consider doing some soul searching into if this is something you can accept. If it isn’t, you could try to communicate this with your partner to come up with a solution or compromise that works for both of you.
Zero in on the real problem
One way to deal with a partner that’s changed is to ask yourself: What is it exactly about this difference that bothers me? Once you pinpoint what that is, you can then communicate your concerns more effectively.
For example, instead of saying, “I hate this new friend you have,” you could explain to your partner: “I’m glad you found someone you like to hang out with, but I feel like we aren’t spending as much time together as I’d like.”
Communicate to understand
When something doesn’t quite feel right in a relationship, communication is the key to understanding the other partner’s perspective.
For big changes like a partner that suddenly doesn’t want to have children anymore, this could mean diving into possible reasons why.
For instance, maybe they really do want children, but they’re afraid they’ll be unable to support them financially. Once you understand the reasons behind this change, you can work together to ease their fears.
Realize when changes are deal breakers
If your partner has changed in a way that you know you’ll have a difficult time living with, or if they’re doing hurtful or abusive things, sometimes it’s necessary to end the relationship. And that’s OK.
Letting go of a relationship isn’t easy, but sometimes it’s the best solution for one or both partners.
Relationships with friends, family members, and even co-workers aren’t immune to changes either.
For instance, one of your friends might have recently entered a new relationship, while you remain single. This can change the dynamic of your friendship.
Handling this is much like dealing with change in a romantic relationship. Honest, open communication paired with empathy can help you adjust to the new norm.
Relationships are like living things — they grow and change with the seasons of life.
Embracing change and learning to adapt when expectations aren’t met can ensure your relationships continue to evolve the way it was meant to.
If you and your partner are having difficulties with changes — big or small — you could consider relationship therapy or marriage counseling. Many couples find that talking with a trained professional helps them adapt to changes, handle conflict, and provides the tools you need to cope.