How to pull together (not apart) when things change

Change is hardest at the beginning, messiest in the middle and best at the end.
― Robin S. Sharma

Change happens

Even if you have a very stable relationship, you will experience the turbulence of change at times. If you and your partner are growing, then change is inevitable. And any change that one partner makes, impacts the other. However, if you can be pro-active when navigating times of change as a couple, you can reduce conflict and increase your day-to-day happiness and harmony.

For example my client John recently decided to leave a job that no longer feels like a fit for him and is actually resulting in some burnout.  He is doing this with the support of his partner, after discussion and consideration.  He anticipates being unemployed for a few months, as he takes a short rest and formulates what’s next.

Although supportive, his wife Louise is anxious about money and their reduction to living on one salary.  She is expressing concerns about John’s spending habits (which she didn’t worry about when he was earning too) and wonders exactly how he will use his time off and what slack he will pick up at home.  Clearly, this change in their lives is revealing a need to renegotiate their agreements and re-align around this “new normal” — for however long it lasts.  Some pro-active conversation is in order.

Change comes in many forms

Over a lifetime, the kinds of changes you may face as a couple are many and varied.  They may include:  moving, having a child, changing jobs or career, being unemployed, starting a business, buying or selling a home or property, suffering an injury or illness in the family, changing needs or challenges with children and teens, dealing with elderly parents, a death in the family, becoming empty nester’s, transitioning into retirement and so on.  You will share many changes in common with other couples and some that will be unique to your own situation.

Change brings changing expectations

I know many couples currently navigating choices around semi-retirement and retirement.  This transition brings all kinds of shifts in the status quo – and with it comes many possible shifts in a couple’s expectations of one another.  How much time will we spend together and apart?  What activities do we envision for this next phase of life?  What if one of us wants to travel and one doesn’t – or can’t?  What about differing health and energy levels?  How much time do we want to spend with grandkids?  Who does what around the house?

When a major change occurs — like retirement for the older couple or having their first baby for the younger couple — it catalyzes a reorganization and reformulation of roles and responsibilities.  Individual needs and stressors will be in flux and sometimes in conflict.

Resentment or anxiety is the first clue

This need for renegotiation with our partner may initially show up in the form of resentment. Perhaps your partner isn’t meeting your new set of expectations. Or as in the case of John’s wife Louise, it may show up as fear around how they’ll deal with the new situation.  Both fear and resentment can result in irritability and conflict with your spouse.

Take the initiative

If you want to be pro-active in responding and partnering well through these times of change, try taking the following steps:

1. Acknowledge together what has changed or is about to change.

Bring the change into overt awareness by discussing with each other how the status quo is changing and the reality that this will “rock the boat”. Any change (i.e.: leaving a job) is bound to cause ripples (or even a tsunami!) which may not have been anticipated.

2. Set aside time to have a good conversation about the situation. 

Plan a time when you can talk without interruptions.  Go out for dinner. Wait until the kids are in bed.  Book a coffee date with each other. Set aside some dedicated time to talk in which you won’t be interrupted and can give each other your full attention.

3. Start with each person sharing how this change is affecting you.

Take turns. Give each other a few minutes of uninterrupted air-time, in which you each share all the ways that this change is impacting you:  What you think about it, how you feel about it, any fears or concerns it has brought to the surface.  When you speak, use “I statements” and speak only for yourself and your own experience.  There is no place for blaming or shaming in this exchange.

As you listen to your partner, try to stay open-minded.  Allow them to have their own experience of the situation, rather than try to talk them out of their response.  Their experience may be very different than yours.  Can you be OK with that?  This is not about changing the other – but simply about hearing how this change impacts them.  That may be challenging if they are distressed – however this part of the conversation will be more productive if you can simply hear them, rather than try to change or fix them. Stay with this step until you both feel heard.

4. Have a brainstorming session on how you can help each other navigate this change.

  • Here’s how I could be supportive of you.
  • Here’s how you could be supportive of me.
  • Are there any requests you have of each other?

See what requests of your partner you can accept and vice-versa. Take note of the ones you can’t.  Validate your partner’s need, even if you can’t accept the request.

5. Think about getting some outside help.

If there is some form of support, which you can’t give each other, ask yourselves whether it is time to bring in some outside resources.  Sometimes a change can tax a couple beyond their own resources and they need to ask for help from friends/family or pay for a service that they need. (House cleaners and baby-sitters come to mind.)

6. Share your best hope for the impact of this change in your lives.

Do some imagining together.  How might this change be for the better? How might we ultimately benefit from this situation, despite the disruption it will bring temporarily?  How can our relationship grow through navigating this change?  And if the change involves loss or something you didn’t ask for: How can we grow as individuals and deepen our love and support of one another by living through this together?  Keep your eyes on the potential benefits.

Your relationship is worth it

Such a conversation is well worth the investment of time and attention to one another.  Not only will it help to prevent resentment and conflict, it will generate feelings of connection and intimacy.  When we are overt about our expectations and agreements, we shift from complaining about our partner to appreciating them.

You and your partner are a powerful team when you work together pro-actively to navigate the changing circumstances of life. And when you pull together (not apart) in the face of challenge, life can get juicier — and so can your relationship!

Invitation to action 

If you are experiencing a challenging change, make a date with your partner and try out these conversation suggestions.  Remember:  You can make the growth of your partner — and the changes that brings — into a growth opportunity for yourself.

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