The Cliché You Need to Forget in a Relationship for the Long Haul

Don’t let those Netflix dramas convince you that change is a bad thing.
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Don’t let those Netflix dramas convince you that change is a bad thing.

“But you’ve changed!” If you’ve heard these words while watching any fictitious relationship drama on TV or in the movies, chances are that you’re about to watch a relationship go down in flames. It’s either on the cusp of needing to be desperately saved, or it’s beyond salvageable. “You’ve changed” usually introduces an indisputable claim—often an insight—that explains why the relationship just won’t work. After all, change has happened, and that can’t be good, right?

I haven’t been married that long, but I’ve known my husband for five years. And if there’s one piece of common wisdom I would opt to debunk, it’s this: that change in your relationship means you’re doomed.

While there are striking similarities between the guy I met years ago at a concert and the man that’s become the father to my child, I can’t imagine what he’d be like now if he’d actually stayed the same. Change in a person is inevitable. In fact, staying the same may not only be impossible but also really, really boring. As a relationship takes two people—two of which are constantly evolving separate human beings and living and breathing two different lives—wouldn’t a healthy relationship be not just merely prepared for change but also expecting it?

Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, agrees with this approach—and confronts the myth that change in relationships is bad. As relationships journey through different stages and all kinds of life situations—such as job loss, financial wins and woes, health scares, birth, death, new philosophical insights and career changes, change should be expected, not avoided. Moreover, a change in your spouse should never be seen as a harbinger of doom.

While TV dramas might have programmed us to think the absolute worst when someone says “you’ve changed,” Dr. Orbuch shares that it can actually have an exciting and positive influence on your relationship. “When you add something new, which is what change really is, you can add romance and passion to your relationship.” In other words, it can be an opportunity.

I spoke with Gene and Roberta, who have been married for more than fifty years—having lived in many cities and had many children—about what change looks like in marriage. When I asked them what evolved over time, Roberta laughed and simply responded with, “Well, what didn’t change, Gene?” After giving me the lowdown about their lives, it was clear: Their success for fifty years and counting boiled down to acceptance and flexibility.

When asked what their secret was to keeping so close despite all the changes, Gene mentioned a play, The Cocktail Party by T. S. Eliot, which he read shortly after his second child. While T. S. Eliot’s message might be a little “depressing and probably too extreme,” Gene said it had a point. And he shared it with me:

What we know of other people

is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them.

And they have changed since then.

To pretend that they and we are the same

is a useful and convenient social convention

which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember

that every meeting, we are meeting a stranger.

“Sure, we know people change, but we don’t consciously think about it because change is messy and constant, and we want time to stand still, so we can catalog and put people into neat boxes,” Gene said. “This especially is true for the people that we’re closest to. We can go for years not seeing how they change because we forget to ask them.” He then explained to me how when he first met his wife, he knew that she loved lilies. As the years passed, he made a point to bring them home now and then.

But after he read that poem, he realized that he had never asked her about flowers since meeting her. So he asked her again what her favorite flowers were, and she replied that they were now sunflowers. It was when she was taking a walk with Gene early on in their marriage that the shift occurred.

According to Dr. Orbuch’s long-term study on married couples, Gene was on to something. In her book, Dr. Orbuch shares that it’s critical to notice small changes before they become big obstacles. Moreover, small changes can really help keep the romance fresh. I mean, how sweet was it that Roberta remembered when she decided that sunflowers were her favorite?

While “you’ve changed” might work as a dramatic twist in your next Netflix drama binge session, being wary of change in real relationships won’t do you any favors. Change is inevitable in each of us. It’s what helps us grow and develop as people and as couples. As Roberta pointed out, “If things stayed the same, I’d say our lives would have been really boring!”

My husband and I have moved to different cities, we’ve changed jobs, we’ve encountered unexpected health issues, and now we’re having a baby boy. And these outside factors ignited major changes in our personalities, too. We’ve both evolved—together and independently. For us, change isn’t some necessary evil that we have to contend with but a key survival skill that we’ve developed and learn to appreciate in each other. Change isn’t something that we need to work around. It’s a subject that’s become a constant. It’s a skill that we need to work with.

Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing how we change and grow together over the years. Because one thing is for sure: It definitely won’t be boring. So rather than seeing the inevitability of change as the harbinger of relationship doom, I vow to see it as an exciting opportunity to rediscover my husband each and every day.

Photo Credit: Erynn Christine Photography