In many ways, you might feel like a completely different person than the one you were twenty (or more) years ago. Your core values may have changed, as well as your beliefs, preferences, and interests. And yet, if you look past all the trappings of a personality, and all the specifics of what goes into a self-identity, you may feel like the you central to your being is exactly the same. (Which is part of the reason why it may cause us to bristle when others tell us we’ve changed.)
I remember my grandmother telling me once (when I was too young to appreciate it) that although she could see herself in the mirror and therefore realized she was not the same person she was when she was in her 20s, where it mattered—internally—she was still that twenty-something self. “There’s a part of me that hasn’t changed, no matter what the mirror says.”
Though you likely have not stayed the same in terms of how others see you, your inner compass is still pointing to you, making your thoughts and feelings and impulses uniquely and urgently yours (indeed, your inner narrative is the only inner narrative you can access), which is one reason why, though we change on the outside, and often in terms of behavior too, there is still something basic—yet mysterious—about each of us that stays with us despite the flurry of changes that take place over the course of a lifetime.
When you access earlier memories of yourself, there is still the same “you” looking out at the world, the same “you” navigating the path you’d chosen then and the one you’re on now. If you think about it from the viewpoint of your own life journey, it’s an interesting combination of bedrock-stability and ever-moving, flowing-river-flux.
Self-identity is complicated, highly personal, and always evolving. But when you’re in the day-to-day of anything, including your own dynamic self, you don’t necessarily notice the bit-by-bit change. (That’s why looking at old photos or reading old diaries can be so jarring and can feel so dramatic.)
However, what does this ongoing change mean in marriage or long-term relationships? And how does the inner core of “the same me” play into the mix?
Long-Term Relationship Problems: “What Do You Mean, I’ve Changed?!”
“You’re my life partner: you shouldn’t change; you [implicitly] promised to stay the same!”
First off, let’s look at what happens when we meet someone we decide we want to spend our lives with (beyond the euphoria and swept-off-your-feet feelings). You love the person for who s/he is at that moment in time. You feel compatible. You decide to take the scary plunge of tying the knot or moving in together because you’d much prefer life with this person in it than without. In many ways and about many things, it’s likely that at this point you and your soulmate are on the same page and look forward to coasting down the road toward a successful marriage.
I don’t need to tell you that this homeostasis doesn’t stay put. You and your partner, in the process of living life, will undergo changes. That’s natural. I’d even argue that change among the individuals in a relationship, despite the inherent challenges it presents, is a good thing. (When we’re not presented with challenges, we humans tend to stagnate, rather than grow and expand. The very act of learning to navigate the challenge is part of what stretches us, in a positive way.)
This natural change only becomes a problem when one partner accuses the other of changing, as if s/he were supposed to freeze his/her self at the moment of marital or relationship joining! Many people misinterpret the commitment to be in a long-term relationship as including an implicit promise for each person to stay the same. This unrealistic assumption, instead of leading you toward a healthy relationship, can lead to headache and heartache down the road.
Long-Term Relationship Advice
Commitment does not mean committing to keeping everything the same; it means committing to each other and to working through the changing landscape of life together.
Keep in mind that sometimes when your partner tells you that you’ve changed, especially if it has the tone of accusation, s/he might actually be expressing underlying anxiety about the changes s/he has noticed. For instance, your partner might be wondering the following types of things when they say, “Hey, you’ve changed!”:
- Are the changes I see in him/her threatening the fabric of our relationship?
- Is it possible that the evolving person that is my partner will want something from the relationship that I cannot give?
- Will I fall off his/her psychological radar as his/her priorities shift and his/her interests expand?
Change can be disruptive. Like tectonic plates shifting under the earth’s surface, changes in one partner can send reverberations throughout the relationship that disrupt the status quo that was once so emotionally grounding. In these instances, change is fought against by the partner who desires sameness and stability. This can leave the person who values change feeling smothered—the marriage or relationship that once made you feel so alive slowly turns into a prison cell that robs you of your vitality.
Change is a fact of human existence
Change isn’t something you should resist or try to stamp out. Change is inevitable, and, as I said earlier, I believe it’s ultimately beneficial for us and necessary for us to reach our highest and best selves. When you set yourself up for believing that you’ll stay exactly the same for your partner, or that your partner will stay exactly the same for you, you’re denying the reality of change and increasing the likelihood of conflict in your relationship.
So instead of saying, “We’ve changed, but…”, try this on for size: “We’ve changed, and….”
Let’s embrace change for the sake of our relationship,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured [top] image “Change Ahead Sign” by Mrpuen/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)