Have you ever wondered what happened to the person you married? Or does it sometimes seem like your marriage is totally different from five or 10 years ago?
Researchers who study marriage are more and more convinced that most couples actually have several relationships over the course of their life together. We're not talking about the rising divorce rate, mind you, but rather the evolution over time of several different marriages to the same person. And this seems to be true whether your marriage is formalized legally or simply a long-standing partnership (which, for the most part, develops just like a legalized marriage).
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Even in the best of marriages, it seems, our relationships after four years will be different from they were when we started out, and different still after nine years, 15 years and so on. Though there are certainly some constants as our partnerships evolve, we are, in fact, continually renewing and rewriting our marriage vows, often in surprising and profound ways.
The reasons for some of the changes in our marriages are fairly obvious. Just think about the differences in your own relationship made by small children. Or remember what it was like when all the kids were finally in school or independent-minded teenagers. Then there are things like changing jobs, going back to school, illnesses and disabilities. Perhaps an elderly parent needs regular care or even moves in.
It is common sense that our marriages would need to change to adjust to such factors. Often we feel we really have no choice but to accommodate our marital relationships to such external realities, whether we want to or not.
Other changes in the life of a marriage, however, are less easily predicted or understood.
Some have to do with our growth and development as individuals. We expect to be different at 45 than we were at 35 or 25. Interests, commitments, even values change over time. Our relationships have to adjust to these changes, too.
We also had better expect our spouses to be different (though sometimes we'd rather they weren't), and be ready to accommodate their growth and development, too. Like it or not, the person we married ultimately will not be the person we are married to.
Even relationships themselves change. Marriages have a life of their own that evolves over the course of time. How we communicate, negotiate differences, show love and affection, express our sexuality, or even just spend time together all change as our partnerships mature.
Changes that arise out of our own individual or relational maturing are often more difficult to deal with. They seem to sneak up on us. We aren't aware of them until after the fact, or until they've become a problem.
Whether the changes in our relationships are the result of external or internal factors, they can play havoc with our life together. This usually happens for one of two reasons.
Sometimes such change is difficult because we don't expect, allow or work at it. Many of us get married with the expectation that our marriages are set for life. And when the first kid comes along, or our spouse goes back to school, or wants more intimacy, we are surprised, worried and perhaps a bit angry.
The evolution of a marriage can be difficult as well because the changes we are experiencing can pull us apart. Though I believe that our marital relationships can handle a lot more change than we imagine, there are some changes a marriage probably can't handle. If he decides he wants to live in the Australian outback while she wants to stay in Chicago, it is going to be hard to contain both choices in one relationship. Generally, however, the changes we are confronted with in marriage may require some flexibility and adaptation but do not need to threaten the existence of the relationship.
Once we recognize that change in our marriages is inevitable, we can work to not only accommodate change, but welcome it as well. Ultimately our spouses will be a lot more interesting as life's partners if they are growing and developing as people. And our relationships will certainly be more fulfilling if we are open to new and better ways to live together.
Our choice, then, is not whether our marriages will change, but what we're going to do about it.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend: A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage with Children."