There’s so much emphasis these days on creating the relationships we want, but little information about how to shift dynamics that are present in long term relationships—whether romantic, friendships, or even professional relationships.
We all have habitual patterns and dynamics we fall into in long-term relationships. It’s par for the course. The longer we’re in relationships, the more we will get entrenched in our habits and our ways of relating, both the positive and the negative ones.
Just as we find ourselves falling into habits and patterns in relationships, so do our partners. Some of these habits may be positive things that make us feel loved, respected, and cared for. Others can be negative. We all have things our partner does or says that bother us in some way – usually these are just small annoyances, or things we wish they wouldn’t do, but we don’t think much about them because they aren’t huge deal-breakers. We just accept them as “the way things are”.
In some cases, though, these annoyances do become larger and more grating over time. Eventually we find ourselves resenting our partner over this habit and thinking, “Do I just need to put up with this? Do I adapt my own expectations to make this work? Or do I just need to leave?”
We always have the opportunity to change something.
What we often don’t realize is that none of these habits are permanent. There is a common misconception that the solution to growing apart is actively working to grow together throughout your relationship. However, all you have to do is just stay in connection with each other while you grow individually, and check to ensure your individual growth doesn’t impede theirs, or vice versa. You can grow together, but you don’t have to.
As is often said, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is now.” This applies to our relationship habits too. The moment you realize something is bothering you, and that you want it changed, is the moment you can begin to shift that pattern.
Here are three key steps to that process.
(For an even more in-depth exploration, with many clear examples, watch the video at the bottom of this article).
Check Your Assumptions: Don’t assume your partner is above growth.
When we discover something we don’t like about a person, we often assume that they do it because they like it, or they want it that way. However, our partner may actually be open to changing that habit. Maybe they haven’t brought it up because they think you want it that way. When neither partner brings up the things that bother them, you can end up stuck in a pattern neither is happy with. Each person thinks they are making a sacrifice for the other.
Alternatively, your partner may not even realize they have a habit that bothers you. Most of us have idiosyncrasies that we cringe at when looking back at a certain time in our life—that is, if we’re fortunate enough to have people in our lives to help correct it. Therefore, instead of assuming that our partner is not willing to change an aspect of the relationship, take into account that maybe they haven’t changed because you’ve never indicated it bothers you.
Understand your own boundaries and expectations
Once you’ve decided to bring something up, under the assumption that your partner might be open to changing it, you can begin to have a productive and collaborative conversation about it. It is important to be honest about your perspective, and to provide your partner with the opportunity to bring their feelings to the table as well.
The goal of this conversation is to talk openly about the habit. Be curious about their experience, and share openly what each of you want to do moving forwards. Before talking to your partner, establish your own ground rules. What are you willing to do in the case that your partner doesn’t feel the same way? Ask yourself, “What can I do, and what can I offer, in order to be generous about this?” If you don’t know what your boundaries are regarding moving forwards, you’re less likely to be able to have a productive conversation.
Try to be as flexible with your offerings as possible, and consider your partner’s response carefully. Coming to a solution may be as simple as agreeing with each other, but it could also present a challenge if your partner becomes defensive about their habit or wants to continue doing it. By making your needs and expectations clear, you provide your partner with all the information they need to be able to meet you halfway.
Collaborate: When pointing out a problem, be part of the solution.
Relationships require effort on both sides, and it’s our responsibility to show effort wherever possible. For example, if we find our partner eating excessive junk food, lashing out under stress, or disregarding certain responsibilities, it’s part of our duty to bring a solution to the problem when we bring it up, instead of simply pointing out the behaviour as a negative.
Instead of telling your partner to stop eating so much junk food, you could bring up your health concerns. You could suggest purging the house of unhealthy food, therefore making a collaborative effort to help both of you become healthier. As a result, your partner may respond with, “I’ve actually been meaning to alter my diet”, rather than lashing out in defense. Both lives make a change for the better, and the relationship grows because of it.
Sometimes, we find ourselves taking on more household tasks, like cleaning or cooking, because our partner is not doing as much anymore. When our partner ignores assumed responsibilities, or seems to contribute less to the household, it could be worth the effort to have an open conversation about both people’s tasks. Reconsider who does what in the household. For example, one person may reveal that they actually hate doing a certain cleaning task, and wishes they could take over more of the cooking instead. By suggesting an alternative, they are addressing the problem head-on with a solution, rather than simply saying, “I don’t like this task.”
Turning issues into stepping stones will not only make you more valuable to others, but will make others more valuable to the people around them as well.
For a more in-depth discussion of these three key steps, and how to implement them, watch the video below & feel free to comment with any insights or questions!
It’s never just “the way things are”
When all three steps to shift patterns in long-term relationships are taken, the partners will reveal their willingness to change. Never assume that “that’s just the way things are.” People can grow apart, but when maintaining long, meaningful relationships, it’s important to stay connected while growing together—regardless of the direction.
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Great article! My husband and I are celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary today and honestly our relationship is so much better now than when we first got married. It’s taken some big ups and downs to get here, but there are a few things that have helped me keep steady:
1. My husband deserves the benefit of the doubt just like I do – don’t assume your partner’s actions are intentionally malicious or spiteful. Sometimes they really did forget, or get distracted. So do I sometimes.
2. My husband truly wants the best for me and I for him – learn to see the love and care in your partners actions even if it’s not what you expected/dreamed of.
3. My husband’s ADHD can be really frustrating for me, but learning to respond to the little things with patience and amusement rather than snappy irritation inspires him to try harder for my sake.
It took my too long to accept my part in things when they weren’t going well, so my suggestion to folks is this: be the one to step forward first. change your behavior and responses/reactions because you want the best for the relationship, not because you want your partner to change. If you’re really at your wits end, do it for 90 days and if things truly don’t improve then you can make the decision to leave. But for those 90 days, really commit to bringing a different energy, show up differently, get really humble and take responsibility for your part.
And above all else, remember and reflect on the love you feel for your partner as much as you can.