What Is 'Creeping Normality' & How Can It Affect Even The Healthiest Relationships?

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Couple experiencing creeping normality in relationship
Love

Even if you've never heard of "creeping normality," it could already be affecting your relationship without you realizing it. So what is it, exactly, and how can you avoid it?

Creeping normality is when a major change gets accepted as normal, because it happens so slowly and in such tiny increments you don’t even notice. And in most cases, they’re the kind of changes you'd never choose, because they're not particularly healthy or helpful.

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How does creeping normality affect relationships?

There are many ways that creeping normality can affect relationships, and I’d like to focus on just one: Those times when a major, life-altering situation occurs that results in a paradigm shift for a couple.

Examples of this are when one partner gets diagnosed with an illness, or when a couple has a baby. The changes that happen in these types of situations often make sense in the context of the event, because the event forces their focus onto coping with the situation.

Imagine, for example, how you might react if your partner was diagnosed with cancer. You might start to rely more on others instead of them, in order to protect them from any added stress.

You might close down emotionally, so that you can handle the extra burden of supporting your sick partner. And your response to the situation would happen gradually over the time period of your partner's illness, while your focus was on them and their needs.

Before you know it, your new way of relating has become the new normal.

Then once your partner recovers, without your ever noticing, your new way of coping and relating feels "normal."

The relief you experience now that the crisis is over is so great, it overrides the fact that your intimacy levels may have dwindled during the circumstances leading up to it.

So much so, that if you were on the outside looking in on your relationship, you might find the lack of intimacy appalling. But because you slowly, almost imperceptibly slid into this new norm, it’s easy to settle in there.

The same thing could happen when couples have their first child.

Lack of time and lack of sleep can affect a relationship in so many ways. When the focus shifts to caring for a baby and basic survival, it’s easy to see how a new normal could creep in without either person in the couple noticing.

Bit by bit, you spend less time together, you stop sharing deeply, you stop having sex, and because the joy and work involved with having a new baby is so overwhelming, you let it slide.

And if you're like most couples, you rarely sit down to reflect and discuss how things are going in the relationship, because it can be so hard to do.

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Evaluate your relationship after a life-changing event.

The period after a life-changing event is precisely the time for a couple to be intentional about evaluating and improving their connection with each other.

This is an important time to reflect on your needs and desires as a couple.

Take time to ask yourselves the questions that really matter:

  • "What do we want our partnership to be like going forward?"
  • "What do we need to do to bring us closer to our goals?"

A good life is created with clear goals, tiny steps, and consistent effort.

Most people are not very skilled at goal-setting or sticking to their goals once they’ve been made. What you put your focus on grows, and what you neglect, doesn’t.

Know your priorities.

It’s important to know what your priorities are. Make sure you're actually prioritizing your priorities!

This might sound confusing, but here’s what I mean: What you say your priorities are and the way you live don’t always line up.

In other words, you might say your partnership is your top priority, but you don't put more time or effort into your relationship.

Stephen Covey gives a brilliant example of this in one of his books. He places two large glass jars on a table in front of his audience.

One jar is empty, and the other is partially full of sand and pebbles. In front of the jars are three large rocks.

He tells the audience that they represent the three most important things in their lives. This is personal and unique to each person, and usually include things like marriage, family, financial security, and career success.

Then he asks them how they could fit the three rocks into the jar that is already almost full. Everyone can see that there is not enough room in the jar to fit the three rocks in, and everyone is perplexed.

Finally, he places the three rocks into the empty jar, and then pours the sand and pebbles from the other jar, into it. The sand fills in the spaces in-between the rocks and there is plenty of room for everything.

It's a powerful and visual demonstration of why you need to put your priorities in place first, as essential aspects of your life, and then fit everything in around them.

Creeping normality happens in every relationship, for lots of different reasons.

What matters is that you remain vigilant in caring for your relationship.

It matters that you take the time, especially after challenging life events, to reflect on what you want from your partner. And it matters that you make clear goals to get there.

When this type of structured reflection and goal-setting becomes a standard part of your relationship, no matter what creeps in, you and your partner can continue to co-create a successful and fulfilling relationship!

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Debby Gullery is a relationship coach who loves to teach people simple strategies they can use to improve their most important relationships. She is also passionate about helping single adults prepare for lasting love and commitment. She is the author of Small Steps to Bigger Love, a practical, easy-to-use book for couples who are seeking to be more intentional and loving.