How to Experience Change in Your Relationship

How old were you when you first started dating your partner?

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In two weeks, my partner and I will celebrate 14 years of being romantic partners. There are still some striking similarities between myself today and my 19-year-old self. We're both compassionate, thoughtful, ambitious people. Same with my partner--she shares an intense compassion for people, and I've always admired her craving for authenticity and willingness to be vulnerable.

There are also some clear differences. I'm much more outspoken today than I was 14 years ago; in my early 20s, I avoided conflict like the plague, desiring for everyone to get along. I am much more likely to let you know when something bothers me. My partner has lost some of her idealism, an idealism that often left her open for an intense pain that coincided disappointment. She has also improved at communicating her needs.

We've definitely changed the way that we do conflict. In earlier times, we commonly let each other know that we were okay, even when we weren't. We spoke superficially with each other until the storm passed, and then picked up as if nothing happened. I sacrificed things that I wanted for myself to make my partner comfortable.

After all: Happy wife, happy life.

As couples and family therapists, we recognize that change in one partner seldom leads to immediate change in the other partner. In fact, the other partner will often initially regress, confused as to the implications of their partner's new behavior, unsure if they can trust their new stance.

Relationship change is hard because it challenges the archetypes--expected behaviors, reactions, desires--that we develop about our partner over the course of our relationship. We create archetypes about our partners early in our relationships--sometimes in our first meetings. It's often easier for us to deal with the flawed partner that we know rather than the mysterious partner with potential that we don't know.

Couples therapy doesn't eliminate conflict; commonly, it initiates conflict as we explore new ways of communicating, playing, and being. If you'd like to work with one of our couples therapists, I invite you to reflect on these seven questions.

  1. What are my core assumptions about my partner?
  2. What experiences have created these assumptions?
  3. How do these assumptions prevent me from growing as an individual and relational person?
  4. How do these assumptions prevent my partner from growing as an individual/relational person?
  5. In order to let my partner experience the change he/she needs to undergo, which of these assumptions do I need to let go of?
  6. What type of discomfort may I experience if I accept the changes that my partner (or I) may undergo during couples therapy?
  7. How do I work through that discomfort in a relationally responsible way?

My work through these seven questions has helped me receive my partner as the amazing 30-something that she currently is, rather than viewing her as if she's the 20-something that I started dating. Our journey has been beautiful, frightening, exhilarating, and ultimately, rewarding.

If you'd like to start a similar journey with your partner, give us a call at 617-750-0183. Or feel free to sign up for an initial session online.

Jeremiah Gibson is a licensed marriage and family therapist and the president of the Massachusetts Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.