People often resist change in relationships. They like to stay in their comfort zones. They want to know what to expect and not have to work too hard to figure out how to relate to their partner. But life is always changing and so are we. And that’s a good thing! Even though we retain our basic personality, how we express that is going to change as we learn new things and get older and experience new challenges throughout our lifespan. You can fight it, but you can’t stop it.
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Positive life changes can include getting a promotion, joining a church, changing our health or appearance, participating in new activities or overcoming an addiction or other problem. Negative changes could be new health problems, losing a job, mental illness, death in the family, or moving to a new place and not feeling a part of the community. Both kinds of changes can lead to relationship problems such as conflict or feeling distant because we must integrate these new things into our already existing relationship dynamics and routine. This article focuses on positive change , not things we can’t control .
Getting fit: an example of change that sometimes leads to conflict
Have you ever known a couple who were both very overweight and sedentary when they got married? Then at some point one of them decides to get healthy and loses weight , maybe joins a fitness center or running group or signs up for a yoga class or a weight loss group. Their new community offers them support, encouragement, and accountability to help them stay on track with their goals. Their newfound energy overflows into all areas of their life. You might expect the other partner to be excited about this , but often that is not the case.
Things can get rocky at home if the other person is not interested in becoming more active and eating differently and meeting new people. They preferred their partner to remain as they were when they met. It was safe, predictable, and comfortable. Eating is a big part of life and old habits of eating and other favorite activities like watching movies together and sleeping in on weekends are now gone because the other person is not eating junk food, is gone to the gym in the evening, and gets up early to go run. The routine of both partners has changed even though only one of them was seeking it. Along with the physical changes, the changing person is often much more happy and coming out of their shell and being integrated into a new group friends. They may be unintentionally spending a lot less time with their partner or even intentionally pressuring them to join them in this new way of life. They are probably talking about their new activities, weight loss, and friends a lot because they are excited, but this can feel very threatening to the still-overweight person.
The bottom line is they feel 1)like they lost the person they loved, and could be in danger of being left behind, and 2)insecure about their own self-worth in this atmosphere where change is being highly valued.
Often when one partner grows and the other doesn’t , there will be conflict.
Sadly, I have witnessed transformations like this lead to several divorces in the running community as a result of the runner becoming a healthier person. In these cases it’s usually the runner who ended up leaving because their partner tried to hold them back from pursuing an authentic life. I do not advocate divorcing your spouse over fitness goals or choosing your friends over your spouse, but if the spouse is physically abusive, that is another story. As a Christian, I always write from a Christian perspective and in this case, the Bible is clear that divorce is not an option except in cases of adultery or if the other person leaves. In the case of abuse, separation should happen for safety, reconciliation attempted, and then let God handle the outcome. While “He doesn’t cheer for me at races.” is not a Biblical ground for divorce, it can be good motivation to work on your relationship. As much as I love running, I would never tell someone that it’s more important than preserving your marriage.
How does change impact dysfunctional relationships?
What does abuse have to do with change? In some, not all, dysfunctional relationships, there is an imbalance of power in which one person uses the other’s insecurities to keep them in the relationship. In other words, they make them think that “you’re lucky you have me, no one else would want you, you’re not good enough to get a better partner, you deserve to be treated badly because you are overweight, have a health issue, don’t have a degree, aren’t a legal citizen, can’t read well, whatever, etc.”. The person who sees themselves as superior may have plenty of their own problems, but they feel comfortable with people they think they are ‘better than’. So it may not be abuse as far as physical, but they use abusive methods of communication, such as criticism, passive-aggressiveness, the silent treatment, withholding love, that imply that the other person is inferior and DEPENDENT on them. This is unhealthy for both parties. Both parties need to become aware of how they are relating so they can change. This awareness often happens unevenly, as in one person starts the process before the other, and then the other must either join in or be left behind. And this is when the problems often start, when one person decides to make a change and the other resists changing. If they dig in deep, it can lead to actual abuse. If you are in that situation, please seek help from a counselor or other person. If you were formerly a ‘superior’ person who has now changed, you will probably be in a good position to pull your partner up with you.
The fact is that people don’t really change that much as far as who they are, but how they behave and relate to others can change when their thinking changes.
Our thoughts about ourselves can hold us back if they are negative or they can propel us forward if they are positive. People who think positively about themselves tend to think positively towards others. When we feel like we are powerless, we feel like victims. So when your overweight or formerly addicted or depressed or unhealthy partner begins to work on themselves, they are REMOVING the dysfunctional parts of themselves and letting the hidden self out. Or in the case of a person who has been born again and is submitting to leading of the Holy Spirit, they are BEING changed by God and He is removing the parts that do not glorify or serve Him. If you can see them as a partner in your own personal growth, and not as a threat, you can grow closer together through the changes.
What should you do when your partner changes?
- Support them! Encourage and appreciate the hard work that they are doing.
- Listen to them! Ask them what they are going through and how they feel about it. Change can be overwhelming even it’s something you wanted.
- Love them! Their happiness is your happiness. True love means seeking their highest good.
- Enjoy them! Look for the good in their changes. Be glad for it.
- Accept them! This new version of your partner is going to be even better than the old one.
- Join them! Realize that you are feeling insecure and ask yourself why that is. Make a decision to do some self-evaluating about things you might want to change and also ask them for their thoughts.
- Respect them! They have experience and insight that you can benefit from. Don’t let pride stop you.
- Trust them! They are not trying to hurt you, they are trying to help themselves get better. Ask for reassurance and then believe it.
- Communicate! Discuss the concrete and practical issues that come with change so you can figure out how to both be happy. Compromise and adjustments are part of any healthy relationship.
- Be patient with them and yourself. Changing old habits isn’t easy and it takes time. Give yourself grace.
- Ask for help. If you both lack the ability to navigate these changes in a positive way, don’t give up. Seek professional help. Many couple have come through life changes with a more intimate and mature love for each other.