I heard David Bowie singing “Changes” on the radio the other day, and it made me think about how much relationships constantly change and evolve. But do we also evolve along with them?
More importantly, why are we surprised when our significant others start to change? Who promised us that love always stays the same? It’s probably our early indoctrination into fairy tales that makes us see our commitment to a partner as a moment that’s frozen in time — placing the ring on the finger, the wedding kiss, then happily ever after. But no one ever told us what happens after those moments: Did Cinderella and her prince start arguing over paying the castle’s bills or who controls the TV remote? Did Snow White stop making time for those magical kisses from her guy once a few kids arrived?
Here’s the thing about the changes that occur in anyone’s relationship (regardless of whether they are better, worse, or just different): they are inevitable. How both partners respond to these changes dictates the future path of their romance together.
Recently, I spoke with men and women who’ve had that “you’ve changed” conversation, asking them to share stories about how these changes impacted their own relationships. Here are the men’s tales, along with the lessons they learned; check the link at the end of this story to read what the ladies had to say on the subject.
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“She became hypercritical of me”
“My wife used to love the way I was — no complaints. I could do no wrong,” says Boston native Wayne, 39. “Five years into the marriage, it’s like the opposite occurred. Now, I can do nothing right. I don’t manage our finances well enough; I don’t take care of the house to her liking. I don’t think I’ve changed as much as I think she’s just lapsed into being hypercritical of me. One day I got tired of taking what felt like abuse, so I asked her: ‘When did you stop being on my side?’ She was really taken aback by that. Then, I pointed out all the ways that she’d changed and become increasingly critical, and how it made me resent her. She listened, and I heard her point of view, too — she wanted more help around the house. So we are working on finding some middle ground, but without all the carping.”
Lesson learned: Don’t take on the role of your man’s personal harpy, nag, or mother — feel free to pick whichever term best describes the particular way you’re expressing your displeasure to him about the things he does that either annoy you or elicit your disapproval. If there’s something you want, try positive reinforcement first, then follow that up by asking for what you want rather than complaining about what you’re not currently getting from your partner. After all, nobody can read someone else’s mind.
“She made having a baby a bigger priority than our own happiness”
“We both want a family so much, and it’s taking a lot of effort for us to get pregnant,” says Maryland resident Josh, 32. “We’re trying everything, including IVF treatments. They have tested our patience, and it’s definitely been hardest on my wife. I am doing everything I can to be supportive. We’ve been married six years, but for the last three, her entire focus has been on getting pregnant. At times, it’s felt like she wants to have a baby more than she wants us to be happy. I know that things change when kids — even the ones you don’t have yet — enter the picture. But I felt like I needed to address our commitment to each other as partners as well as parents, so I talked to her about it. I told her how much I missed her and us. It cleared the air and helped us refocus on integrating a family into our lives, rather than creating a family that drove a wedge between the two of us.”
Lesson learned: Going from childless couple to parenting partners is one of the toughest transitions two people can make. Transitioning from being the center of each other’s universe to getting lost in space — specifically, the space that your life has to expand in order to accommodate your children — can be disorienting. Keep a schedule of regular check-ins with your partner to make sure you’re still prioritizing your relationship in a healthy way.
“Her job required us to be in a long-distance relationship”
“Things were going well with my girlfriend of two years,” says North Carolina resident Bradley, 34. “Our romance and careers were both on track. I have my own law practice, and she works in marketing for a big company. But things changed when her company asked her to move to Chicago for a year to manage their new office located there. Obviously, this was a huge decision for us — and a big challenge we didn’t see coming. We talked about it and finally made a decision together. She’d go, we’d visit every other weekend, Skype every night, and at the end of six months, we’d evaluate: Was it worth it? Was it working? If not, she’d make a plan to relocate back. We agreed that our relationship always came first. Six months in, all was OK and she loved it there. In fact, so did I; it really grew on me. So I decided to move out and join her in Chicago. The whole challenge made us grow closer, and I attribute that to approaching it as a team effort from the very start.”
Lesson learned: You can’t always see relationship curveballs coming at you. Overcoming the challenges of a long-distance relationship can be one of the biggest issues a couple might face in these transient times, because like it or not, sometimes you have to go where the work is available — even if it’s inconvenient. But you can work out a mutually agreeable plan that gives you clear-cut ways to visit in person and communicate when you’re apart; you can also put a timeline into place for evaluating whether it’s working and when the temporary distance will come to an end for you to both be happy with the arrangement. The real key to success is making sure you approach the situation together from the very beginning and agree to make decisions that prioritize your relationship as well as your work options.
“Her appearance changed drastically, and so did her self-esteem”
“Lynn has always been a really attractive woman,” says New Yorker Andy, 32, about his girlfriend of six years. “But she changed physically last year when her eating got out of control. She gained 40 pounds and became very insecure about her appearance. I told her many times that I loved her, regardless of her weight. At the risk of others accusing me of being shallow, I brought up my concerns for her health. That was a lot of extra poundage on her 5’3” frame. Yes, I was worried about our sex life and my ongoing attraction for her, too, but I focused on my concern for her health. I wanted us to be able lead vital, active lives like we had before, back when we worked out a few times a week and ran in the park together. It was an awkward conversation, but what it revealed to me was just how bad she felt about herself. From there, it wasn’t a big leap for her to understand that if she felt bad about herself, it could harm our relationship, too. I was glad that I handled it the way I did.”
Lesson learned: A change in one partner’s physical appearance is right up there with a few other certainties we face in life, such as death and taxes. If you’re in a relationship with someone for any length of time, your partner might: lose or gain some weight, get a few wrinkles, lose hair in some places (head), grow hair in others (let’s not even go there), and just generally age in visible ways. Looks are a hot-button issue for most people. People hear criticism in the smallest comment about their appearance from others. So, the best way to approach things when discussing your partner’s appearance is by focusing on issues of health, vitality, and self-esteem — aspects that are important to each of you personally and as a couple, but are less likely to trigger your partner’s defenses. What constructive criticisms can you offer without sounding cruel or hypocritical? Which suggested enhancements would your partner actually be willing to get behind? Ideas you can both commit to — such as exercising more with you at the gym vs. unrealistically asking her to turn back the hands of time — should be most effective.
“She was so depressed after her father died that I thought I’d lost her, too”
“My wife’s father had a series of strokes and he was basically in and out of rehabs for over a year,” says Atlanta resident Kurt, 42. “During that time, my wife cared for him until he passed away. After that, she was so depressed; she couldn’t seem to shake it. I tried thinking of fun distractions, but nothing worked to improve her mood. I missed the sparkle in her eyes and her positive attitude. Needless to say, it was a blow to our relationship. All the goodies in our relationship were just plain gone, and I did the best I could to stay connected to her. I finally stopped trying to plan fun weekend getaways and asked her to please go see a counselor. She resisted at first, but then agreed to a few sessions when she realized I was serious. It’s been six months, and I can feel her spirit coming back.”
Lesson learned: Tragedies can knock both of you for a loop, like the illness or death of a loved one, job changes, health issues, losing a friendship, etc. These unfortunate life events make coping difficult even for the toughest among us. Confiding your troubles to a friend is always an option, and depending on what the issue is, maybe that will be enough support to get you through it… but not always. When a major life change profoundly impacts your relationship and you can’t recover from it on your own, it’s time to seek professional help. Talking with a counselor who’s trained to help you — but not emotionally invested in whatever trial you’re experiencing right now — can make all the difference.
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.