52 Ways to Show I Love You: Prepare for Change!

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Earlier this year I wrote about the benefits that surprises can bring to love relationships. Today I address the opposite, the value of warning about and navigating changes to come. We can show our love by mindfully addressing change — and the occasional need for it — with our partner.

As we approach a new year and end one filled with triumphs and disappointments, successes and regrets, progress and regressions, we often take stock of our own behavior, our dreams, and the status of our most important relationships. We may decide to make changes in ourselves, in our hopes and goals, in whom we love and how we love them. Today I address the decision to change or the need to respond to changes beyond our control. Next week I will explore two styles of making changes and how we can be loving to a partner during the period of transformation initiated by or resulting from change.  

What changes do we face?

  • Internal conditions. We all change over time. As our bodies, minds, and spirits evolve, our abilities and resources grow or diminish. You may want to modify something in your life to grow more assertively or to slow down and integrate new information. Have you taken on or discarded a role? Launched or ended a career? Modified your social circle? Adjusted your priorities? Had a change in health or physical functioning?
    • Piaget pointed out that human development is a dialectic of “accommodating to” and then “assimilating” new information, resulting in “equilibration” or “adaptation”. Our ease of adaptation is our “resilience”. If a need to assimilate new information becomes insistent, you may want or require a radical change (accommodation). In terms of growth, you may fantasize modifying a habit, where you live, what work you do, who you include in your activities, or how you view your purpose in life. Gravitating towards a new or different wardrobe is often a clue that your unconscious is nudging you towards a shift that looms on the horizon. 
    • Stress that leads towards physical breakdown, perhaps even an illness that forces you to restrict your ambitions, can signal a need to slow down or reclaim balance in life. 
    • Increased irritability or aggression can show us that our nerves are fraying around the edges. Our tolerance for stimulation or the responses being asked of us may be overwhelming our resources.
  • The context of our lives. Beyond your control but requiring your response, you may experience a change in family boundaries when a child is born or adopted or a loved one marries or dies. You may want to change your routines or adapt your home after the last child leaves for an adult life. An employer needing to downsize, may eliminate your job, or your location could be reassigned. Or maybe your perspective broadens (or contracts) and new possibilities cause you to redefine your hopes and dreams. For example, a new work opportunity could push you to rethink your attitude towards commuting; a developing disability could force increased time and attention to physical maintenance. An expanding social world discovered through a volunteer commitment could cause you to rethink priorities of how and with whom you spend your time.
  • Shifts in the larger world. An “ecological” approach to human development points out that not only are we influenced by what happens within our selves and our inner circles, we are powerfully affected by changes in the world around us, including those that reveal or illuminate social norms and beliefs. The media in all its forms are critical in this respect, documenting or revealing shifts in the larger culture through direct reporting, radio programming, advertising, film, and now the electronic world of social media. What may have felt “normal”, like fat-laden food picked up on the run, can come to seem unsavory. What may have felt natural, like taking time for play with other people, can begin to feel wasteful or tedious. Social norms affect the perceptions of our lives, our dreams, our goals, and our notions of what is possible.

How does change present itself to us?

  • Our situation can become more complex or it can become simpler. Your calendar becomes cluttered and new meetings impossible to schedule – or you look at a week with few commitments.  You scramble to address others’ demands on your time or you find yourself with no plans at all.
  • Our situation can become more demanding or less insistent. Your flexibility feels challenged, muscles either taut and tearing from too much stretching to your max, or they begin to feel flabby, reminding you that you are not sending enough oxygen and attention to your body or the essential parts of your life.
  • Our situation can become more predictable or filled with the unexpected. You can feel a growing sense of routine and repetition and, perhaps after initial relief, begin to wonder if your routines retain meaning. Alternately, you can feel your life is beyond control as you dance around flames, putting out flash fires.

Why is addressing change together important for two people who love each other?

  • When the change occurs within one person in a household
    • Without coordination, misunderstanding can flourish. How does one person understand a spouse suddenly dressing up for exercise class? How does one interpret a partner’s long hours at the office or sudden disinterest in work?  
    • What affects one person affects others who love them. Data on emotional contagion clearly show that people in close relationships to each other often transfer emotional responses back and forth. An emotional reaction that motivates one person is mirrored, consciously or unconsciously, in a partner. An unexplained excitement or depression, among other affects, can result. This “emotional contagion” is real and can feel confusing, especially to the person who did not have the initial reaction. Smooth dynamics return when the initiator accepts responsibility for the emotion and impulses for change that it generates and the other can retreat to a role of observer and/or supporter. 
    • The person who loves you can help or hinder. Our close relationships serve essential purposes. They can help us change when that is required or desired or they can interfere with our efforts if a loved one does not understand our motives or fears the outcome. The best solution is to communicate freely and openly about changes that are needed or desired.

Sometimes change within the relationship is required

  • Do you need to alter habits of responding to each other? Perhaps a new approach to discussing subjects guaranteed to arouse conflict can dilute the initial defensive reaction of either person in the couple. Perhaps an invitation to play can elicit a counter-invitation that takes account of the need that led to the invitation.
  • Or change a routine? Perhaps meals need to be simpler and shorter and more flexibly timed — or they may need to be attended to with more detail and respect and allocation of time so that the social aspect of nourishing one another can take place. 
  • Or do you need to revisit an outworn pattern? Perhaps an attitude and language that once was endearing has become annoying.  Perhaps new problem-solving skills are necessary in the face of more complex problems.

If change is external and requires adaptation

  • Define what you will each do. Clear roles and responsibilities pave the way to effective joint problem-solving.
  • Specify how you will do it, when, why and where. Attending to the details can minimize working at cross-purposes. Only one person needs to be in charge of phone contacts with utilities; only one needs to coordinate pick-ups from the garbage collectors, charities, moving vans, or driving duties for kids or grandchildren.
  • When both partners are profoundly affected by the change(s), be clear about choices that are in the interest of each partner individually — and those that are in the interest of the love relationship.

Changes within one person or within the context of the couple and their interaction or their worlds may require attention. The source of the need or desire for change, its characteristics, and the processes of the two people will influence their success in adapting to the changes. Next week I will explore ways to show love through honoring individual differences in our responses to the need for and implementation of change.

When did you last recognize a need for change? What provoked that need — was it internal, external, contextual? Did your partner agree with the need for change?  How did you deal with defining what was required and a way to approach it? Did navigating change strengthen or strain your relationship?

Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower

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