When the People We Love Take Different Paths

istock_000003541474xsmall.jpgLife is change. This much we know. But sometimes we can be unprepared to face the magnitude of change that such growth can bring, especially when it affects relationships we’ve had for years and always considered immutable.

But people do change. It’s not unusual for a couple to be completely different people at 30, 40 and 50 than they were when they first met. Parents continue to grow personally as life goes on, and their children grow (and change) right along with them. Friends change too, sometimes in ways we could have never predicted.

So how do you handle the fact that the man or woman you married, your parent, your child or that the friend you’ve had since childhood has become a completely different person, with different needs, wants and desires?

1. Talk about what’s happening.

This is the most important step. Too often, people in a relationship try to ignore the changes in each other, hoping that if they don’t bring it up it’ll either go away or some workable accommodation will magically appear on its own. But ignoring it just means that the situation’s likely to explode when you least expect it. In order to deal with the changes effectively, you need to find out what the change means for you and them and how it affects what the other person wants or needs – from you, from the relationship, from life in general. Talking about it will get all the issues out into the open where they can be examined and dealt with in a healthy, productive manner.

2. Create a plan.

Once you know what’s going on and how it’s likely to affect your relationship, you can begin building a plan to deal with those changes. If your once-homebody wife has discovered a love of travel, maybe it’s time to rethink your vacations and other activities to account for this. Or if travel just isn’t your thing, you both need to find a way to support her needs without endangering the relationship. If your child decides that they really don’t want to be a doctor after all and wants to drop out of college to live on a llama farm, you need to determine how best to support them and make sure that they can safely explore their new life, without judging or trying to change their mind. Remember, when dealing with another person’s changing wants, goals or needs, the fact that it doesn’t make sense to you doesn’t mean it’s wrong or stupid; it means you’re missing some vital piece of information about the situation.

3. Act as a team.

Don’t view the change as an enemy or problem, or deal with it in an adversarial manner. Adopt a mindset that you’re all on the same team and that this is merely something you have to find a way to deal with together, in a way that works for everyone. Otherwise, you’re likely to wind up resenting the other person for changing and blame them for “causing” the problem, instead of finding a way to deal with the issue at hand.

4. Get creative and be flexible.

These two concepts go hand in hand. Changes in a relationship will probably require creative solutions, and being creative requires that you remain flexible in how you act and think. If your spouse used to be the breadwinner but is now ready to retire just as you’re thinking of stepping out and taking on a career of your own, you’re both going to have to rethink your ideas about the nature of your roles in the relationship. You may have to get creative when it comes to your view of work, while your spouse will have to be willing to expand their thinking about retirement. This doesn’t mean that your old ways of thinking were wrong. They were right for that particular time and situation, but now the situation has changed and requires a new way of thinking about it.

5. Work with what is, not with what you wish were.

First, you need to accept that you simply can’t expect someone to stay the same for their entire life, no matter how much you want them to. For one thing, it’s simply impossible, and for another, it’s not fair to either of you. Second, you need to acknowledge that they have changed and that they’re very unlikely to go back to being the way they were (if pressured, they may pretend otherwise but that’s not healthy for either of you not to mention being an unstable and destructive state of affairs). Third, you need to understand that they’re still the person you fell in love with, gave birth to or grew up with – they’ve just grown in ways you didn’t predict. When you love someone for who they are, and not for what political party they endorse or what job they have, then you’ll be ready for anything.

Change is inevitable. Sometimes it can be relatively minor (developing a taste for exotic cuisine) and sometimes it’s life changing (a religious conversion). Keeping the lines of communication open and safe are the first steps to being able to deal with whatever changes may occur. For more information on how to prepare for and deal with change, visit How Change Works. (http://www.well.com/~bbear/change.html)

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