Where did any of us get the idea that relationships — and more importantly, the people in them — are static in nature?
Maybe that notion comes from fairy tales where the prince and princess meet, marry, and blissfully head off to the castle… only to never be seen or heard from ever again. Or maybe we owe our stilted attitudes to cinematic rom-coms, where relationships start out with a few bumps in the road and any changes that occur are always for the better. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan always smoothed out any rough edges by the final reel, after which the audience simply assumes that their lives — and smiles — are forever frozen in time.
Such pat endings are strictly for the movies. The reality is that changes will occur — such as when a spouse becomes more demanding, turns socially insular, or lets life stress get in the way of keeping the relationship’s passion alive. One or both of you might start letting the positive feedback your partner once craved slide. The super-exciting phase of a romance transforms into a dull rut after a few months. Or, something tragic happens and throws a wrench into the couple-y bliss; that’s life. Whether the changes occurring are actually for the better or worse depends much of the time on our individual choices.
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People’s needs naturally change over time. When someone says, “You’ve changed,” it’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes it means you’ve stopped living your life for others; other times, it means you’re not the same partner your better half fell in love with. Recently, I spoke to men and women who’ve had that “you’ve changed” conversation with their own partners, and who now are willing to share the impact it had on their relationships. Below are the women’s perspectives on how these discussions went, along with a lesson each of them learned; be sure to check the link at the end of this article to read what the men have to say about it, too.
“We fell into an old-fashioned rut with each other”
“It was after the third year when I started to notice things changing,” says New Yorker Marlene, 37. “He forgot our anniversary, and the compliments about my appearance that were once the norm now were coming at an alarmingly slow rate. Our big evening discussions centered on which restaurant we wanted to call for dinner delivery — Chinese or Italian? Boring! So I talked to him about shaking up our routine, and we broke some old patterns that had led to us to taking each other for granted.”
Lesson learned: It’s easy to eventually stop noticing when she gets her hair done or when she’s looking fit and sexy after a workout. We tend to overlook the familiar, right? Well, no one likes to be overlooked. Women (and men too, of course!) need a certain amount of attention and positive feedback to feel cherished. It’s a simple (but true) maxim: making some kind of special effort — like planning a dinner or anniversary date together — helps keep your romance alive.
“He was bringing his work stress home way too often”
“My boyfriend is a lawyer, and when his workload heated up last year, his entire personality changed,” says Florida resident Tammy, 32. “He became easily irritated, very temperamental, and not at all pleasant to be around. It wasn’t that I expected him to be Mr. Happy all the time, especially if he was in the midst of a work crisis, which he definitely was for a while. It’s that I needed him to recognize what was happening to us, so I told him that his moodiness had become the norm.”
Lesson learned: People need occasional reminders of how their moods can affect a significant other. Monitor yourself so you become more aware of how you’re feeling and acting — and how that behavior’s impacting your relationship. If you need to blow off some steam, fine. But it’s only fair that you acknowledge what you need from your partner — spending a little time alone, more time with your buddies or at the gym, or maybe getting a temporary pass to work later hours at the office — just make it perfectly clear that it’s only temporary when you do so. It’s fair for her to want to see you return to the seemingly even-tempered guy she originally fell for without having to worry that she’s permanently stuck with a stressed-out workaholic.
“His constant partying was taking a toll on us both”
“When we met, my live-in boyfriend Brian was a social drinker, which means we’d have a few beers together during a game or wine at dinner,” says Washington native Lisa, 43. “His drinking patterns changed after a few years, and I noticed. He was less energetic, not as reliable, didn’t work out, and it negatively affected his looks; he gained weight. It was an uncomfortable talk to have: ‘Brian, I think you’re partying too much. I can see the effects on you, both physically and mentally.’ I debated waiting longer to address it: Would he change on his own? But I am glad I did it right away. He couldn’t tell that his partying was getting in the way of us being able to enjoy each other, but it did bother him that I was so worried about him. So he started looking at his behavior, cutting back, and things eventually returned to normal. Luckily, he didn’t require professional help to get there, but I was ready to push for that if that’s what he needed.”
Lesson learned: Is it a bad habit he can fix on his own — or the start of a bigger issue that’s going to eventually require professional help? Sometimes, you just can’t be sure. But it’s important to address the problem as soon as possible instead of letting it fester, because bad habits have a way of seeping into our lives and affecting our significant others in unexpected ways.
“I missed having my independence and the ability to socialize more”
“Over time, my once-gregarious husband grew into an introvert who wanted me to be more introverted, too,” says Boston resident Deborah, 41. “We’d been married for eight years when I finally decided to address the fact that I didn’t like him wanting me to stay around the house all the time — just the two of us, no one else. I told him I needed to get out more, and that I felt like I was suffocating with just him for company. Initially, he was hurt. But I reminded him of how I was when we first met. I was active in a women’s social group; I played tennis in a league; I loved throwing and attending parties. And I am still that person today. I got him to agree that we needed to find a better middle ground — one where I get out on my own more often and we also make time to socialize together.”
Lesson learned: You’ve got to be able to compromise without feeling compromised. There’s a fine balance between dependence and interdependence; the same is true of socializing too little vs. every night. This is stereotyping a little (and certainly won’t apply in all instances), but I think it’s true that women have it their nature to compromise. Women also seem to be more social creatures than men, especially over time. It’s important to keep the focus on reciprocation in the relationship.
“Our kids were depriving us from having alone time as a couple”
“The first few years together were awesome,” says California native Jennie, 35. “Then we had kids, and our one-on-one time together ended. My husband took to being a daddy like a fish in water, and I loved watching him with our two girls. But somewhere in his ‘daddy dotage,’ he forgot he was a husband, too. No more date nights; no more quiet time alone. I didn’t want him to feel criticized, so I stuffed my feelings down for about a year. At one point, I got scared when I realized I was thinking of leaving him. That prompted me to tell him that I missed having ‘couple time.’ I stressed that I needed it to feel connected to him as a partner. Our kids truly were sapping all our alone time. When he realized how high the stakes were — that I was really unhappy — he was amenable to changing our schedules in order to have a weekly date night. We make it clear to the kids that this was our ‘mommy and daddy time,’ and we’ve developed an entire support system of babysitters so we can expand it to two nights a week if we want that in the future.”
Lesson learned: Your relationship was important before your kids were born, and it needs to thrive afterwards, too. Keep the focus on each other as your brood expands. It might take a village to raise children these days, but it takes just two people to make a relationship work.
Dave Singleton, an award-winning writer and columnist for Match.com since 2003, is the author of two books on dating and relationships. Send your dating questions and comments to him firstname.lastname@example.org.