Growth vs. change in relationships – and whether either is possible

People often ask me if I truly believe that people can change, and I always answer with the same response:

“If I didn’t, I’d be out of a job.”

I know for sure that people don’t change unless they want to, nor until they’re significantly motivated to do it, but I see people change all the time – every day, in fact.

We reach a new level of discussion, however, when we consider this in the context of romantic relationships: Can we expect our partners to change? Most people will empathically answer that with a “No,” but I wonder if they might feel differently if they considered it to be “growth.”

Can we expect our partners to grow? Of course we can – if you ask me.

People tend to make sweeping generalizations about life, and the notion that you “can’t expect your partner to change” is an oft-sung tune. In reality though, almost everything comes down to subtlety and nuance, and I believe that we’re making a mistake if we dismiss the possibility of growth in partnership out of hand.

In fact, it may be a necessity.

Having been in a relationship for about five years now, I have to say that I have no idea how my partner and I would have lasted this long if we weren’t growing and changing together – if we weren’t able to have conversations about what is or is not working for us, and then trying to adapt.

Not only is this ability vital to romantic survival, in my mind, if anything I’ve come to feel that it may potentially be the single-most important ingredient to a relationship’s success.

For me, knowing that he’ll not only listen to me but genuinely try to hear me when I’m distressed is hugely important. Likewise, I believe that he knows that I sincerely welcome his feedback, because self-awareness can’t be cultivated in a vacuum, and I genuinely want to understand the impact that my behavior has on him.

Not everything in life is malleable – and certainly a big part of being in a relationship is accepting the person you love for all of their plusses, minuses, challenges, and vulnerabilities – but the brutal reality is that we’re all growing and changing in life whether we like it or not. So in any partnership we’re either growing together – or we’re growing apart.

In the service of helping you to increase the efficacy of your relationship communication, I’d like to offer the following tips, tricks, or reminders:

  1. Try to always focus on “I language” instead of “you language,” and talk about how you feel, not what you believe your partner did. For example, “I feel really disappointed when you put Sasquatch in his crate without grooming him,” will probably land better than “You didn’t groom Sasquatch!” The goal here is to increase the likelihood that the person you love will be able to hear your concern without feeling the need to get defensive.
  2. Recognize that there’s no such thing as “winning” an argument when it has to do with feelings. Almost everything in life is subjective, and people often respond to things based on prior experience. The goal in relationship communication is not to determine the victor, but for both people to leave the conversation with a better understanding of how the other person interpreted the events.
  3. Whenever possible, try to maintain a sense of humor. Fighting (as long as it’s not damaging or abusive) is a healthy part of intimate relationships. Remembering that can sometimes help to keep things in perspective. One trick from the world of couples therapy is to argue while speaking in a silly accent, or wearing a funny hat on your head. You can probably imagine that it’s hard to remain stuck in an argument when you’re talking like an Australian robot – and sometimes we all need to know when it’s time to call it a day 😉

The bottom line is that any relationship that’s built to last needs to be able to adapt, and ideally both partners can maintain a certain amount of compassion for each other while we navigate the existential roller coaster that is life.

I hope this article has been helpful for you. If you’d like to talk about it you can join our group by opting in at the bottom of this page.