How to Handle Change in Your Relationship and Know When it's Time for Couples Therapy
Providing couples therapy in Pasadena, CA, I hear this all the time. Something has changed in one or both partners resulting in instability, friction, and conflict. “He’s not the man I fell in love with!” “Ever since the kids came along, she’s just not the same.” While most change is minor and easy for couples to handle, sometimes it can be intense and cause serious problems in the relationship. When that happens, couples therapy can be a helpful option. But one thing is clear, change it the only constant, and instead of signaling the end of times, it can be an opportunity for your relationship to flourish and grow.
Why do Changes Happen?
Changes happen for all sorts of reasons. Common examples that we all experience include having kids, moving to a new place, changing careers, even losing weight. Other, perhaps less common, changes include getting sick, suffering with addiction, healing old wounds, or realizing you have a different sexual or gender orientation. Most changes happen because we grow and heal!
Contrary to popular opinion, our brain, and thus our personality, continue to change over the course of our lifetime (here’s Dan Siegel on the subject). Until the day you die, you will continue to develop and grow. New experiences shape, quite literally, the structures of your brain. This constantly shows up as changes in the way you think, relate to self and others, and behave. We also continue to heal.
We are shaped by our earliest experiences. How we attach to others is determined by how we attached with our caregivers. Our experience of the world, and of ourselves, is significantly impacted by what happened during the first few years of our lives. If that experience was in any way adverse, over the course of our lives we will heal. And that can create huge change.
Everyday as a couples therapist in Pasadena, CA, I see couples who are trying to navigate the often difficult and painful process of adapting to one or both partners changing and healing. When one partner heals from depression, anxiety, or trauma, for example, the other has to do some adjusting as well. Carol and Susan came to me because Carol had recently started to do some work in therapy on the sexual abuse she suffered as a girl. As you can imagine, the process of healing from that abuse changed her. Carol used to be shy, withdrawn, and submissive. When she met Susan, that was who she was. And Susan, quite naturally, got used to and fell in love with that version of Carol.
But Carol changed. She went from shy to eager, withdrawn to open-hearted, and submissive to wanting more control in her life. You could see the change in her face and her body and hear it in her voice. She was a new woman, and she was thrilled. And while Susan was grateful and relieved that Carol was finally working on this material and healing, it was like she was suddenly married to someone else. And so our work became helping them navigate this change.
What are some tips for how to deal with or address small and big changes in a relationship?
1. Always expect change! You will both grow over the course of your relationship, so go in knowing that the person you fall in love with will change over time.
2. Be open and process difficult feelings. It is normal to feel confusion, jealousy, resentment, and fear when your partner changes. Don’t keep those feelings to yourself. Share them. I always recommend to my clients that they set up check-in times during the week, 15-20 minutes where you just share your feelings about each other, lovingly, gently and caringly. Make eye contact, hold hands, and each take a turn and speak your truth. “I’m having a hard time accepting this new version of you. I feel left out.”
3. Know when you need help! Sometimes changes are really painful and might actually put the relationship in jeopardy. When change results in decreased intimacy, attraction, love, or increased anger, fighting, and isolation, it might be time to reach out for a couples counselor (click here for other reasons it might be time to start couples therapy).
Sometimes changes in one person are just the tip of the iceberg. Something bigger might be occurring such as an illness, recovered memories of painful childhood experiences like abuse, or one or both partners having an affair. Again, in these moments, it’s important to reach out for expert guidance (learn how to talk to your partner about couples therapy).
Bottom Line: Change happens, after all it is the only constant! At times, change can be hard, and you might need some support. But almost always, change can be the pathway to a more loving and intimate connection with your partner. You just need to expect it, talk about it, know when you need help, and let the change happen.