Change is a fact of life…
…so, healthy and rewarding marriages and long term relationships must have the ability to adjust and adapt to changes.
But, we also have a yearning for our marriage or relationship to be predictable and consistent. So, when changes occur that require adjustments in our familiar routines, we may have a natural resistance and try to persist in using our comfortable patterns.
Some changes we encounter are anticipated or planned… while others come totally out of the blue and drag us kicking and screaming into a new chapter. But, either type of change is likely to put stress on our relationship and cause a period of discomfort when it disrupts our habits and routines.
Most of the changes we experience are fairly small and only require some minor tweaks to be integrated into our lives and relationships. They may cause some minor annoyance or inconvenience, but usually don’t threaten the relationship if they don’t have a prolonged impact on the fundamental structures of our relationship.
But, sometimes we encounter changes that really overturn the apple cart and cause significant disruption to the rhythm and routines of our relationship. We rely upon those routines and patterns, both for ease in managing the tasks of our day to day life and also for maintaining a strong and vibrant connection with our partner.
Change Brings Disruption
When a couple faces a change that’s significant enough to cause a disruption to their routines and habitual interactions the relationship is thrown into a period of transition. During this shift their established and routine ways for ‘taking care of family business’ and nurturing their emotional connection don’t work the same, but they’ve not yet established a new set of patterns to replace them.
Even when the change is wanted or planned (birth of a child, new job, retirement) there’s a transition when some patterns for interacting stop working as well – or might not even be possible anymore. If they’re not anticipating the transition this can be confusing for a couple who are excited and celebrating a new milestone, but also find themselves being irritable, stressed, or anxious with each other.
These changes in patterns and routine don’t have to be monumental or extreme to have an significant impact on the couple. Take for example, Jose’ and Sally’s scenario:
Jose’ gets a promotion and a raise – both desired things and valuable building blocks in his career. But, he needs to transfer to a new store across town, requiring an extra 20 minutes on the road each way. To get to work on time he starts getting up earlier… and of course he’s getting home a bit later. He loves the job, but it’s quite demanding; so he also starts going to bed earlier to be rested enough to perform well.
But, what about Jose’ and Sally routine of ‘talking out their day’ before dinner as a way of reconnecting? Now there’s a little less time for that. And what if Sally’s most intimate connection time with Jose’ is the 15 minutes of pillow talk in bed each night. – or the 5 minutes of snuggles they used to have each morning before getting up together? If nothing else, Jose’s added travel time means they have 3 fewer hours each week when he’s at home and available to Sally.
So, even small and intentional shifts in routine like these could have a significant impact on their sense of connection with each other.
Now in this example it might only take some minor adjustments in their patterns and routines to restore their previous level of daily connection. But, Jose’ and Sally first need to recognize the impact this change has had on their connection and then intentionally establish some new patterns to replace those they’ve lost.
Risks of Prolonged Transition Periods
We usually don’t pay much attention to just how much we depend on our patterns, routines, and rituals in our relationship for managing our lives and our connection with each other.
We all form these patterns and rely on them, but it usually happens gradually… and even outside of our awareness. It’s like an invisible web we create to provide structure and cohesion to the relationship.
So when a major change interferes with those patterns, it can cause ripples and significant stress throughout the relationship. If a couple isn’t aware of how dependent they are on those patterns and aren’t prepared for the impact, they can find themselves feeling disconnected from each other without understanding why.
One risk to a relationship in this phase of transition is the couple insisting on continuing to use or resurrect the old patterns that no longer work. This can cause stress and confusion; and frequently result in resentment from partners assigning blame to each other – assuming the other is at fault for things not working.
There’s also a risk of couples staying stuck in transition too long. Being in transition inherently means there will be at least some temporary loss of security, connection, and predictability. But remaining in this state of decreased connection for an extended period can put the couple’s core bond at risk.
Embracing the Transition
In order to remain both functional and emotionally fulfilling for the couple, relationships do periodically need to be retooled – or even redefined in response to changes.
Marriage counseling can assist a couple to take action and face these transitions directly, in order to decrease the intensity and duration of the discomfort, confusion, and frustration that often accompanies these major transitional stages.
A marriage counselor’s knowledge and expertise in relationships can help the couple understand what’s happening to cause the disruption. By seeing that their difficulties are related to changes in the ‘systems of their relationship’ – rather than a change in their partner – they’re able to avoid assigning blame or building resentments towards each other.
Relationship counseling offers the couple guidance for navigating through the transition with a minimum disruption, especially to their intimacy and connection. It helps the couple to identify temporary ways to sustain their bond, while also helping them to consciously and actively develop new patterns of connection. And a counselor can help the couple define their clear and mutually agreeable expectations of each other in the new chapter of their relationship.
A few of the major changes that can put a couple into transition include:
- Becoming parents
- Shifting from ‘daily parenting’ to an empty nest
- Responding to the needs of aging parents
- A new job, returning to school, or retirement
- Chronic illness or a physical limitation
- Relocating or moving to a new home
Ideally, as a couple approaches a major life change they’d enlist the assistance of a couples’ counselor before the disruption to their patterns begins. This allows an opportunity to access the counselor’s knowledge and anticipate the potential impact on their patterns and routines – and begin building replacement patterns before they’re even needed.
But, I’m a realistic counselor and know most couples won’t seek counseling until they’ve been under transitional stress for a while… although still likely to be unaware of the causes. That usually also means their sense of connection has become inconsistent and is in jeopardy.
If you’re already in a transition phase and find it’s having a significant impact on the closeness and connection in your marriage, I encourage you to intentionally and actively start building new patterns of connection into your relationship without delay. If you’re unsure how to do that most effectively, marriage counseling is a useful resource to give you guidance.