RD&T’s contributing writer, Robert Taibbi, shares insight on how to cope when your partner makes radical changes.
One of the things that Ellen has always appreciated about her relationship with Jack was their common values and political beliefs — liberal, socially compassionate. But she’s noticed that Jack has been shifting his point of view of late, being more hard-lined on a variety of topics, and most recently, he said he was switching parties, tired of that damn liberalism and is voting Republican in the next election.
Ellen is not only surprised but feels confused and even betrayed. The fabric of their relationship seems to be fraying. Jack is quickly becoming a different man than the one she married.
For Ellen and Jack, it’s about politics, but it could easily be about religion, where Jack has a religious conversion and is suddenly quoting scripture or spending time with people that Ellen can’t relate to. Or it may be about a lifestyle where Ellen gives up alcohol, and what used to spark good conversations and lubricate their “date” nights is now dry and awkward. While usually, the process has been building over time for the one changing, it can seem sudden and jarring for the partner.
What’s Fueling Ellen’s Reaction?
There’s a sense of loss.
Not unlike an affair, radical changes in the other create a sense of loss on two levels: My image of our relationship has changed — I thought we were a team and on the same page — and my image of you has changed — I can’t connect the dots and make sense of it all, and suddenly you seem like a stranger to me.
There is a loss of trust.
Both our commitment to each other and view of our future was based to some degree on the notion that the core of you and I, and us, would essentially remain the same. This provided me with a grounding, a sense of stability. But now it feels that this unspoken contract has been broken, and I feel I can’t trust you.
We Don’t Know how to Connect
The alcohol used to be a way for both of us to loosen up and bust out periodically; our political views were something we could rally around, jointly participate in, and our common vision fueled a feeling that it was you and me against the world. But now who you are and who we are, seem suddenly fraught with obstacles and emotional landmines.
What to do:
Have a deeper conversation.
Ellen is tempted to argue with Jack about his stance in an effort to help bring him back into the light. This is likely to go nowhere as Jack feels attacked, dismissed, and only becomes more adamant in his point of view.
Instead, the conversation needs to be more about understanding how and why Jack came to his new perspective. Like the affair, the better conversations are not about blame but about understanding the problem under the problem, the emotions driving the change of heart. Here is where short-term couple counseling can be helpful.
Define new rules of engagement.
This is where Ellen and Jack agree to not talk about politics or religion or alcohol in order to stop the tension with each pulling at the other.
Develop new ways of connecting.
To replace the sense of loss, both Ellen and Jack need to decide individually how big a hole this has created in their relationship and then decide what old connections they can build around, what new ones they can create. This will take some work, some discussion, some experimentation. They will need to try to discover new common interests — substitute new hobbies for the political events they used to participate in, build around kids or grandkids in new ways, find projects or take trips that create new, shared, positive memories.
Accept that this is about individuation.
One way of looking at intimate relationships is seeing them as a partnership where each person has the other guy’s back, where each is working to help the other build the happy life that they want to create. Part of this process is realizing that people do change over time, that it is not a betrayal. This is where values of commitment come to the fore and are tested. This is when both are challenged to create a new, shared vision of the future that accommodates the new selves.
They are each challenged to decide what is most important in their own lives, whether they can accept what is important to the other, whether there truly are enough ties to continue to bind them together. This is can be a difficult time of transition.
A time of challenge…and potential growth.