How personal change affects relationships

One of the main sources of tension in couples relationships is the need for individuals to grow and develop - to keep separate in relationships - and for individuals to connect, attach, and depend - to keep close to the other - in other words, the conflicting needs for autonomy and for intimacy. "The management of the inevitable feelings of love and hate towards the same person, which this conflict arouses, is central to understanding the psychodynamics of the marital relationship" - Cleavely, [i].

As we grow (or not) through a relationship we are required to change. If we marry whilst young, we will mature as time goes on; the difficulty then arising as our paths may diverge as one partner may choose to follow a different career or life goal and cease to be the same man or woman we believe we had married.

Several examples here may be used, the first being one of my clients who had little ambition when she met and moved in with her partner at the age of 18. Now 24, her life has moved on and she is currently enjoying a high-flying career, no longer the 'little woman at home', the relationship is struggling as he continues to 'stay the same' whilst she is personally growing way beyond him.

Another example may be those of us who choose to enter therapy for whatever reason and begin to find out who we really are. If our partners choose not to make this inner journey, one then outgrows the other and difficulties arise.

Belief system, spirituality and religion may also impact personal growth for many who come to travel a spiritual path later in life. As we grow spiritually we may well leave our partners behind as we search for a divine connection; unless we are able to make the journey together, the relationship may well fail.

If a relationship has survived the task of bringing up children who have been the couple's focus for many years, once they have 'flown the nest' very different dynamics come into the equation. What do these two people actually have in common other than as parents? A mother may experience 'empty nest syndrome' and if she has not found her own path either through career or other, a sense of profound loss will prevail.

As in the first instance of female loss of identity occurring after childbirth, this may be regained as she grows into her role as mother and then returns as the children grow towards their own independence.  For many women, the prospect of their children growing up is terrifying. One of my clients who experiences difficulties in her own 'growing up' cannot face the thought of her children starting school, let alone leaving home in future years. How then will it be when the inevitable does happen for so many of us? If there is enough communication between couples and enough common ground between them, relationships will manage the transition. But for others, when for a period of many years, the main focus has been on their offspring, it may well be that there is not enough to keep them together once the 'nest is empty'.

So in summary, life changes us as circumstances do not stay the same. If we are able to grow, develop and change together, we may experience a deepening in our relationship; the unfortunate fact is that unless both partners are seeking change, we may well experience difficulties.

[i] Cohen, P. (1999). Psychoanalytically informed short-term couple therapy. In Short term couple therapy, ed. J.M.Donovan. New York: Guilford Press.

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Kingsteignton, Devon, TQ12

Written by Elise Wardle

Kingsteignton, Devon, TQ12

Elise Wardle MA is an accredited counsellor, psychotherapist and supervisor in private practice. Integrative and Jungian in orientation, her specialisation is in depth psychology with a focus on dreams and the journey within, or for those who need intervention therapy, brief focused counselling is also frequently offered to clients.

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