When One Person Starts to Change – Insights from a Marriage and Family Therapist

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This post in our relationship series is by Jessica Fortunato, Registered Marriage and Family Therapy Intern.

Many people think of relationships as a two-way street. It’s a great analogy, so let’s use this image of a road to talk about what takes place when one person in a relationship starts to change.

If you have a two-way street, and one of the lanes is redirected, the landscape of the relationship will change in one of two ways: The other lane may be redirected too, bending and moving along with the lane that has changed, or it may stay exactly the same. Can you imagine these two scenarios?

In the first scenario, as one lane changes and the other lane is redirected, the ride may become bumpy and undriveable. Trying to navigate the same road won’t go as smoothly as it once did. Some parts of the road may be so undriveable that they require a detour. Just as a detour for construction takes you down a new path and adjusts your driving, a detour in your relationship requires you to adjust your routines and strategies.

This type of change can feel unsettling. The old road is undriveable, but the new road is unfamiliar. Those in the relationship may bounce between old habits and new habits, trying to figure out how to best navigate this new route. As time goes on, and construction completes, the detour becomes a permanent part of a newly paved road. The new behaviors become comfortable and the drive is smoother. The relationship continues along its new route. It looks different in many ways, but it’s driveable again.

In the second scenario, one lane changes and the other lane stays exactly the same. Imagine the new lane is curved, while the other lane is straight. There will be moments where the lanes still touch and connect, but there will be other moments where the lanes are not moving together.

Driving on this kind of a road can be confusing and frustrating, just as it can to be in a relationship with someone who is changing things you don’t want to be changed. Meanwhile, the person who is changing may be frustrated that the other person seems unwilling to adapt or adjust. Relationships that don’t evolve together can be filled with conflict, and may become so undriveable that they end.

So how do you navigate a changing relationship?

  • You talk about the road.
  • You talk about the changes, the bumps, the feelings, the pull towards old habits, and the effort towards new habits.
  • You talk about the value of the road and each lane.
  • You put in the time and effort to make it what you want it to be. And sometimes, after all that, you let it go if it no longer serves you well.

When one lane changes a period of reconstruction is inevitable, but the beauty of the process is that it is filled with opportunities for growth, personal rewards, and the potential of a healthier and more satisfying relationship than you’ve ever had before. So buckle up and get ready for the ride towards a healthier you.