One thing all of us eventually learn about life is that it does not stand still! Our experience in the world is full of surprises and new experiences, some of them more positive than others. As the saying goes, “change is constant.”
This is certainly true of marriage. As the years pass, we change, our spouses will change, and our marriage will change. Your relationship is not going to stay the way it was when you first met each other, or even the way it was when you first married.
But at times, this change can be hard to accept. We may long for things to be “back how they were.” We might think back wistfully to the early and exciting days of our romance, when we could hardly stand to be apart for a day. We especially may wish that some of the hard times we’ve faced had never happened. This way of thinking, while common, is not productive for you or your marriage. So, how can people in relationships learn to live with and accept change—and come out stronger on the other side?
Learn About the Three Stages
According to therapist Jeffrey Larson, most marriages actually go through three stages. You’ll probably recognize them once we list them.
Stage 1—Romantic love: This is the exciting, passionate love that we feel when first entering a relationship. It’s very exciting, but over time, the flames will die down somewhat.
Stage 2—Disillusionment and distraction—This is what happens after we’ve been together for a while. First, we become disillusioned as we start to realize that things are not exactly perfect. For instance, our spouse is terrible at helping keep the house clean, or tends to be grumpy every day after work, or our sex life isn’t what we’d hoped. At the same time, our jobs, kids, social lives, and other family concerns distract us from taking care of the relationship.
Stage 3—Decision point: Although not every couple will experience a serious “crisis” of commitment, most will come to realize at some point that they have to make a choice. Facing the reality of everyday life and love and the change we all experience, couples either decide to split up, to “just live with it,” or to move forward together and work on things.
If we make it past that decision point in a positive way, we can move ahead to a new and deeper stage of love. But to do so, we must have some skills and realistic beliefs in place.
Adjust your Expectations
Are you being realistic in what you expect from your spouse and your relationship? Remember, as time passes, both of you will change too. Is it still logical to expect an elaborate dinner every day? Are you waiting for an extravagant gift on every occasion? Maybe the time and money are not there right now for these expectations. Talk about what you want and hope for with your spouse and work things out so that no one is being asked to do things they can’t manage. Of course, you also want to find a way to prioritize what really matters to both of you.
Change Yourself First
Are you stuck in the trap of, “If he or she would just…then we could be happy”? This is a dangerous one! If you’re finding that things aren’t how you would like them to be between the two of you, consider what you yourself can change, rather than sitting back and expecting change from your spouse. You’re likely to be happy with the results.
Value Your Commitment
Even the most romantic and loving marriage can fall apart if the commitment isn’t there. Research shows that having a firm commitment to “sticking with” your relationship through good times and bad makes a big difference. When problems strike, when life feels difficult, or when unexpected roadblocks appear, the knowledge that you plan to stay the course matters. With a firm commitment to each other, we can make it through the other side.
Negotiate Your Disagreements
Every couple will have disagreements, sometimes big ones. As time passes, we are likely to meet with these issues again and again! But it’s not the fact that there are disagreements that can be a problem…it’s how we handle them. Learning to fight fair and to use conflict constructively can get the two of you through it.
Accept Some Differences
There may be some long-term issues that the two of you will continue to have conflict about for years—maybe even throughout your relationship. This might sound like a concern, but in reality, it’s normal. Research suggests that again, it’s not “fixing” every problem that matters, but treating each other with respect and kindness, even when you disagree.
Don’t Forget the Acts of Love
Every day, we have choices to make about how we behave in our marriage. Can we do a small favor for our spouse? Is there a moment in our day to sit down together and talk? What about sending a loving text or writing a short note?
Small acts of kindness and connection will help keep the connection between you and your spouse strong, through all kinds of changes. They also build new memories and create new positive moments together. The two of you can and will change over the years, but remembering to spend time together and reach out will keep the marriage strong.
As the years pass, you and your spouse are bound to experience change and face challenges. Your marriage will transform, and so will you. These moments can be difficult…but together, you can face the many changes that life brings. In fact, challenging times can strengthen your bond as a couple and remind you of your resilience. Life together may change, but your commitment to and love for each other can remain a constant.
By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida
Harris, V. W. (2010). Marriage tips and traps: 10 secrets for nurturing your marital friendship. Plymouth, MI: Hayden McNeil.
Larson, J. H. (2003). The great marriage tune-up book. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.