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Embracing Change in Marriage

May 4, 2017 | by Debbie Gutfreund

How my husband and I learned to stop being scared of change in our relationship.

Ada Calhoun wrote in a recent New York Times column: “A couple of years ago, it seemed as if everyone I knew was on the verge of divorce. ‘He’s not the man I married,’ one friend told me. ‘She didn’t change, and I did,’ said another… Emotional and physical abuse are clear-cut grounds for divorce, but they aren’t the most common causes of failing marriages… What’s the more typical villain? Change.” (Ada Calhoun, “To Stay Married, Embrace Change,” NY Times April 21, 2017)

Yet change in life is inevitable. Circumstances change us. Time changes us. Ideas change us. So why do we feel betrayed when our spouse grows into someone different from the 20-year-old that we met in college?

Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert explained in his 2014 TED talk, “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.” Gilbert’s research revealed that people change much more over a decade than they expect to. As Calhoun writes, “Several long-married people I know have said this exact line: ‘I’ve had at least three marriages. They’ve just all been with same person.’”

I’ve been married for 19 years, and I can’t even count how many different versions of marriage we’ve shared. They include our aliyah years, our pre-children year, our small children years, our graduate school years, our early career years, our move back to America years, our small children plus teenagers years… and with God’s help many more stages and versions of marriage to come. But change has remained constant throughout all these versions of marriages that we have been blessed to share.

Here are four strategies we’ve used to embrace change in our marriage:

1. Reframe change as a positive sign. If we approach change with fear or see it as a sign of betrayal, then we will spend much of our time both resisting and criticizing our spouse’s growth. Reframe change as a sign of growth and life. See your spouse – and yourself – as an ever-evolving being with unlimited potential for transformation.

2. Keep your values aligned. The one part of our marriage that has never changed is our shared value-set. We began our married life with a foundation of strong beliefs and ideals; we work every day on making sure that these values stay aligned no matter what the present circumstances of our lives are. This requires a mission statement, either written down or frequently discussed, that clarifies our goals both in parenting and in marriage. To help each other to grow and have an authentic connection to Torah. To pass onto our children the values of our ancestors with love and warmth and attention. The form of the mission statement may change, but the values embedded within it have remained the same.

3. Try something new often. Most of us depend upon our daily routines for the much needed structure and direction that they give to our lives. But trying new things helps us welcome changes besides the changes that life inevitably brings us. Even seemingly small things like a different type of date night or a new restaurant can spark changes in our mindsets that make us more amenable to change in our lives.

4. Take ‘extreme ownership’ for your life. The Navy Seals speak about the concept of taking extreme ownership for everything that we do. This means taking responsibility not only for every decision that we make, but also for every change in our lives. This doesn’t mean that we blame ourselves for every circumstance or relationship challenge that we experience, but we take responsibility for how we respond to anything and everything, regardless of what anyone else is doing or saying.

In marriage, this means keeping our eye on our own actions instead of scrutinizing our spouse’s. It means finding constructive ways to deal with change in our spouses and in our selves. It means embracing both the positive and the stressful changes that come our way. And it means deciding to use change to grow.

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