Change in Relationships

Darcy Holm, Licensed Mental Health Counselor on Sep 10, 2020 in Relationship and Family

Alright, I have to come out and address the biggest myth I hear about relationships almost all the time. Raise your hand if you, or anyone you know, has ever said the line: “I shouldn’t have to change who I am for so-and-so to want to be with me.” Or, variations of this which can include, “You should just accept me as I am,” “I shouldn’t have to change to make you happy,” etc. These are half true, half myth. Let’s put this to rest once and for all and really get into the workings of relationships.

Let’s start with truth: yes, we want to be accepted for who we are as people. What this means is that we want our values, morals, opinions, feelings, thoughts accepted and respected. This does not mean another person has to agree with us, we just want to be acknowledged for what makes us who we are. When we are accepted for who we are, we have then found where we belong. However, this is not where relationships stop, especially long term relationships, so we have to acknowledge the reality that change is constant. Even these parts of ourselves, what we value for instance, change over time. What we value at 16 is (hopefully!) different than what we value at 40. When we reject the notion that we are constantly changing, we tend to create suffering and misery for ourselves and in our relationships because we are forcing something to stay the same when in all actuality we are meant to change, evolve, grow, etc.

Many times when change is asked for in a relationship the person is often referring to the behaviors of someone. For instance, someone may ask their partner to not go out as much after their baby has been born. Or, someone may ask their partner to not drink as much, or to help more around the house, or not work as much. When people personalize these requests, make them out to be an attack on who they are as people, conflict tends to occur. Our behaviors are not necessarily who we are, they are simply a reflection of our internal perceptions of who we are and who we think we “should be.” It becomes very difficult to change behaviors when we are attached to what they may represent. For example, if someone thinks it's a sign of a "bad friend" to grow distant when a relationship first starts, they may have a hard time cutting back on socializing as their family life starts to change. This is an example of trying to hold onto something or living incongruently with the world around them, which leads to suffering. People are often scared of how others will perceive them if they shift their values, so they continue to engage in behaviors that portray a certain image, even if that means they are not actually living according to their value system.

It is natural that once you get into a romantic relationship, get married, have kids, this becomes top priority in your life, which means your behaviors may naturally change. The best part is, though, is that you still have full say as to whether or not you want to change your behaviors to align with your value system. Now, if your values haven’t changed, then this is what needs to be communicated to the other person. This is often when people get scared; scared to say to their partner that they do not value their relationship with them as much as they value their relationship with their friends. This truth may lead to the ending of the relationship, and that’s okay if it really doesn’t mean as much to one as it does the other. You just have to be willing to face that reality, even if it means hurting another person.

Change is constant and relationships do change us because change is also transactional. However, HEALTHY relationships will change you in ways that you experience growth and vulnerability; ways that will push you to be the best version of yourself. I was watching a TV show the other day and one of the women on the show was overweight and unhealthy. Her partner was very honest about the fact that he loves who she is as a person, but was not as physically attracted to her as he wanted to be and was fearful for her health. This is an example of someone speaking honestly about their wants and fears, likes and dislikes. He asked her to go to the gym, eat healthier, and take better care of herself. The woman struggled to perceive his requests as love and care rather than rejection or judgment, commenting that she shouldn't have to change to be accepted or wanted by him. Yet, clinging to this myth not only will cause her to push him away, it will keep her stuck in behaviors that actually harm her (not eating well, not tending to physical health, etc.).

If you’re in a relationship long term, expect to be a different person in a few years, or even every few years, especially as you handle ups and downs together. It’s very hard to be the same person after a baby is born, a parent or child is lost, jobs are lost, moves happen, all of these experiences change people and can change two people in a relationship differently. It also takes effort to keep physical attraction and you may have to change behaviors in the bedroom to spice things up. You have to create space for your partner to grow and evolve over time, as well as leave room for yourself to change.

UNHEALTHY relationships will ask us to stay the same, engage in ineffective behaviors that actually may cause you to lose the healthy things in our life, block us from growing, hinder success, shame us for who we are or what we value. They will even allow us to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as substance abuse or neglecting our health. These are the relationships that we do need to walk away from, and even in that there is change. I know many times people will leave a relationship and get told the ancient advice of “Stay single, take some time to figure out who you are and what you want.” This is great TEMPORARY advice. We learn more about ourselves through our relationships. We learn limits, boundaries, values, likes, dislikes, wants, and needs, when someone violates them, pushes them, challenges them, or even asks us to negate our own internal cues. So, yes, take time to heal from and acknowledge the changes that have occurred in that last relationship, just be careful to not get so staunch in who you are that you refuse to change in your next relationship.

In short, it is nice to be accepted for who we are when we meet people, yet we cannot resist the changes that naturally occur over time. If someone values their relationship above all else, then the changes they make will be to reaffirm that and align with that value. It is scary to value one relationship above all others, it is vulnerable and oftentimes the fear of doing this is so great that people resist it to the point of losing that relationship.

I think sometimes media and culture and society really play a role in our expectations in relationships, especially the one that we shouldn’t have to change anything about ourselves in order to be/stay in a relationship. This expectation will set you up for suffering and conflict every time. Life requires a balance of acceptance and change, the control, though, lies within us. You get to decide what you are willing to change and what you aren’t, just make sure it is coming from a wise minded place and not one of ego, pride, defensiveness, or stubbornness. Try tapping into your values, getting to know yourself better, which means your flaws and shortcomings, too, and reevaluating your behaviors to determine if they support your values or conflict with them.

Darcy Holm is a Counselor in Burlington, VT.

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