It's no secret that we all change, but for whatever reason we think that our relationships shouldn't. Maybe it's the myth of happily ever after or maybe it's the fact that we don't really understand how our brains create the sensations of infatuation and love. Whatever it is that causes the unrealistic expectation that a relationship won't change is hurting us all.
The only way to stop change is to stop life. We all, by the very nature of being alive, change. Every day we change. Every moment our brains are creating new pathways, our cells are dividing, dying, and growing anew. Our bodies change constantly and that means our minds and emotions are changing too. Expect it to happen. Work with the change instead of fighting against it.
Mature Your Happiness
When I was a kid it didn't take much for me to be happy. A bowl of sugar-cereal and a television filled with cartoons could bring me bliss. I could spend hours pretending to fly while jumping off the steps in my front yard. I could ride my bike in endless loops around the neighborhood.
But as I've grown older it takes more for me to be happy. That's a good thing.
The kind of happiness that I experienced as a kid was immature. I enjoyed an experience and it made me happy. But as soon as the experience was over I stopped being happy. And if I had a negative experience I would be instantly sad or angry (brussel sprouts, anyone).
Growing up has meant, not less happiness, but more mature happiness. I work for my happiness instead of having it handed to me in the cereal-bowl of an experience. And my happiness isn't dissolved in an instant if my experiences aren't exactly what I want.
Own Your Happiness
Related to maturing your happiness is owning it. Your partner isn't responsible for making you happy and you aren't responsible for making your partner happy. If they stop making you happy, or vice versa, then own your feelings and figure it out.
I love my partner and I want her to be happy. I will do just about anything I can to help facilitate her happiness. But I can't make her feel anything and she can't make me feel anything. My emotions are my own and hers are her own. If I'm unhappy I need to start with myself to figure out why.
Are my expectations different from reality? Then maybe I should change my expectations or figure out how to change my situation.
Is my partner doing things that upset me? Then maybe I need to figure out why I'm upset by those things before I ask my partner to change.
Very often, when we aren't happy, we get into conflict and see that as a win-lose situation.
Reverse Engineer Your Conflict
If you aren't familiar with the term, reverse engineering is the practice of looking at something in its present state and trying to figure out how it got to be that way. A mechanic might take apart a car to see how it works so they can make their own, for example. You can do the same thing with conflict.
Fights between couples usually progress along a script. The script isn't the same for every couple, but for every couple they usually have the same script within their own fights.
Here's just one possible example:
- Notice something that causes a negative emotion.*
- Internally blaming the partner for the thing -- and by default the emotion.
- Try to change the emotion by changing the partner's actions.
- The partner feels attacked and responds with anger.
- Anger escalates and harsh things are said.
- The anger cools and apologies are offered, but no real changes are made.
Nearly every point in this script offers another option that would reduce or eliminate the fight, but usually we're too far into the fight to stop completely by the time we notice what's going on. But what you can do is to choose the better option as soon as you see it. Eventually you'll get to the point where some conflicts don't ever turn into fights. That's a pretty great moment when it happens.
In reverse order you could:
- Instead of just apologizing, you could work to make some changes to address the reason why the thing causes negative emotions.
- When the anger escalates, take some time to cool off so you don't end up saying anything harsh or unkind.
- When feeling attacked, you could stop and evaluate the feeling instead of responding in anger.
- Instead of trying to fix your emotions by changing your partner, you could keep the focus on your own emotional response.
- Instead of blaming your partner for your emotions, you could look for what it is within you that causes your response.
- When you notice your negative emotions, stop and think about why you're feeling that way and, if necessary, ask for help in improving your emotional state.
Of course your conflict-script is probably different, but the process is the same. Start with the moment you notice the conflict and begin to work your way backward through the script every time the conflict comes up. Soon you could be solving your fights before they even become fights.
Embrace the Awkward
Talking about feelings or sex or money or your stuffed emu collection can be awkward. That feeling of awkwardness can turn into a sense of impending shame. And that shame can keep you from being able to share yourself with your partner. Not sharing yourself with your partner is the surest way to stop feeling loved by them.
But it's really awkward. It's awkward to say what you want during sex. It's awkward to admit that you're working on your feelings and something that didn't seem to bother you last year actually hurts your feelings now. It's awkward to admit that you overspent the budget or that you forgot about it completely.
It was also awkward to ask your partner out for the very first time. It was awkward to lean in for that first kiss. It was awkward to label yourselves as being in a relationship. It was awkward when you voiced your commitment to each other. Yet none of those awkward moments seem bad in retrospect because they led to your current relationship.
So why are you avoiding the awkwardness of conversations now?
Embrace the awkwardness, the flushed face, the sweaty palms, the pounding heart. Embrace the fear that you might be judged, that you might be ashamed, that you might be rejected. Those are real feelings that you should honor, but not necessarily obey. Your body is responding to fear in your mind with a physiological reaction that sets you up to fight or flee and, since you love your partner, you don't want to fight.
But don't flee either. Remember that when you've faced your fears in the past your partner hasn't rejected you or shamed you or judged you. They kissed you back.
In every other aspect of your life, planning is a good thing, but somehow there's this idea that planning in a relationship takes away the magic. How would you feel if your next flight wasn't planned? Your next restaurant meal? Your next job?
Plan to have a great relationship. Plan your dates, plan for sex, plan for meals, plan for spending money. That doesn't mean that you can't be spontaneous, but that spontaneity will be from the plan you've both agreed to rather than out of nowhere.
You can even plan your conflict. We know that we are going to have big, scary, conflict-laden conversations. We're going to have to figure out our budget when our income changes. We're going to have to think through our careers. We're going to have to check in on our health and our emotions and our sexuality. So we plan for it by setting aside one weekend each year to go through all those topics (and more).
We call it the State of the Marriage Retreat and we've been doing it every year since 2007. This annual retreat is one of the main reasons we have a happy relationship and one of the key places where we've learned the non-secrets that have made every year better than the last.
There's no secret to having a happy relationship, there's just a lot of non-secrets that require us to grow, mature, and work together.
*I'm using the term 'negative emotion' here for those feelings that often lead to fights like anger, fear, frustration, and sadness. But those emotions (in fact no emotions) are inherently negative or positive. Anger tells us something and we need to figure out what that is and search for a positive way to express it. For the sake of brevity, just know that by 'negative emotions' I mean the emotions that lead to a negative response. Cool? Cool!