Love

How The Happiest Couples Survive When One Person Changes (& The Other Doesn't)

Photo: LightField Studios / shutterstock.com 
couple standing against a brick wall, man looking at camera

Every relationship carries some element of risk. The risk of being emotionally hurt, mistreated, cheated on, or abandoned. Surprisingly, one of the biggest risks we all face with our partners is seldom talked about.

As a seasoned couples therapist, I know that this particular risk is at least as common as any of the ones listed above.

Many relationships are threatened because one partner starts changing in a way that the other does not. 

Here's an example:

Sophie has recently realized that she doesn’t speak up for herself enough. She knows she has been letting her boyfriend Jay make most of the decisions, and he’s beginning to take over more and more.

So she’s trying harder to express her feelings, wants, and needs, saying no and asking Jay to help her with things. So far, Jay is not responding well. He actually seems to be surprised and resentful.

In another example, Nathan and Liz have been married for 8 years and their relationship has been very good. But recently, Liz joined a volleyball team after work.

She’s been getting very close with her fellow players and they’ve been going out partying after every game. She’s getting home late and Nathan is worried that Liz may be drinking a lot.

He’s not sure what to do — but there is hope. Nathan might be worried, but he's not helpless.

RELATED: Why People Fear Change — And How To Take Action Even When You're Afraid

Two ways relationships can feel threatened when a partner starts to change

Keep in mind that either of these can be difficult for a partner to accept, adjust to, or deal with.

1. By going forward.

All successful relationships involve some element of personal growth of the partners. Sophie, above, is a perfect example of that. Inadvertently, Jay is pushing Sophie toward growth, which will make her a stronger person.

Few people can get through life, much less a relationship, without growing. Other examples of personal growth might be taking up an enriching hobby, changing to a healthier friend group, stopping drinking or some other harmful habit, or taking a more challenging or rewarding job.

2. By going backward.

One of the hardest situations you can encounter in a relationship is when your partner begins to engage in a harmful, negative, or regressive interest or behavior, like Liz, above.

Examples might be becoming a workaholic, getting involved with online gambling, becoming a couch potato, or becoming irritable or morose. All of these changes are the opposite of growth and have the potential to hurt one’s partner.

RELATED: 10 Reasons Trying To Change Him Is The Worst Mistake You Can Make

Personal changes happen for a reason

Many forward and backward changes in ourselves or our partners are brought on by childhood issues that have been left unresolved. Sophie, for example, grew up in a family that ignored her feelings (this is Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN).

Sophie learned early that her feelings don’t matter. She did not learn how to speak up effectively or advocate for herself, setting her up to have to learn it years later, with Jay.

Liz also grew up in a CEN household. Since her family didn’t talk about or respond appropriately to Liz’s feelings, she learned how to wall them off, but not how to acknowledge or manage them. She is now using alcohol and activities excessively as a way to avoid feeling her feelings.

How to deal with changes in your relationship

  • Identify whether this change is likely a positive or negative one for them.
  • Think about how this change affects you as a separate person. Should you be supporting this change or expressing concern to your partner about it?
  • Bring up the topic in a blameless, “When you do_____, I feel ______” sort of way. If you see this is a positive change, acknowledge that. If it’s negative, express your concern for them as well.
  • Keep the topic on the table and talkable going forward, so that your partner has a chance to hear you and take your needs into account.

RELATED: Are You Ready For Change? 9 Ways To Tell For Sure

If you’re the one changing

  • Pay attention to whether or how your change might be affecting your partner.
  • Bring up the subject yourself and ask them about it.
  • Be prepared to explain your change, and how it’s good for you. Try to listen if your partner feels it’s negative for you or them.
  • Acknowledge that your choices are affecting your partner. Ask what you can do to help them adjust. Try not to be defensive, and ask them for your support.
  • If your change is negative for you and for them, then think about whether you should try to stop it.

A couple can be only as resilient as the two individuals in it. To make yourself more resilient, do your best to address your childhood issues and learn to identify, express, and manage your feelings.

This is the process of recovery from CEN, and it will make you, and your relationship, stronger and healthier in every way

RELATED: Yes, A Person Can Change — But Only Under This One Condition

Jonice Webb has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and specializes in childhood emotional neglect. She is the author of the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

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