Sustaining your Relationship during Major Life Transitions
If you’re reading this anywhere along the east coast, I’m sure you’re experiencing the same sweltering heat that we are in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area. It seems as though it came from nowhere; one minute, the temperature was in the 70s and the next we were just a few digits shy of 100 degrees. I know many people who were anxiously awaiting this warm weather, ready to shed their jackets and pants in favor of sleeveless shirts and shorts. Others (myself including) dreaded the impending heat and humidity, knowing that it would require significant adjustments and a great deal of patience to make it through the season.
I find that individuals’ reactions to the changing seasons are often analogous to their reactions to impending significant life transitions. The “social script” postulates that major life events will occur in a particular sequence. Here’s a commonly cited one: you leave home and go to college (or head straight into the military or the workforce); somewhere during or shortly after that period, you meet someone with whom you hope to spend the rest of your life; you get married; you buy a house; you have biological children; you raise said children to be moral, upstanding citizens; those children “launch” after finishing high school; you retire and enjoy the “golden years” of your life.
We know that’s the story. And I hope that you know as well as I do that life is always messier than that. You don’t end up meeting the person of your dreams. Infertility presents as an issue in your relationship. You have to uproot your family for a job relocation. One of you loses your job altogether. There’s an unexpected and untimely death in the family that seems impossible to recover from. The list goes on.
Situations in life are often complex and complicated. We strive to create joy, stability, and happiness, but inevitably must contend with twists, turns, sudden drops, and slow climbs back to equilibrium. In order to successfully navigating these transitions, it is imperative to have a strong support system. And as we mature and develop our own nuclear families, many of us increasingly look to our partner/spouse to provide that support. But when both of you are frustrated with the impending and/or unexpected change, it can be difficult to connect.
I imagine some of you may be nodding along at this point. Good! If you feel stuck, I’m here to help. Read on to discover several suggestions for actively working to engage with your partner and sustain your relationship in the midst of major life transitions.
- Make time to understand each other’s needs in advance of the transition (if possible). If your family has to move across the country because of a job assignment, explicitly ask each other what you need to make the transition less stressful. If there isn’t advance time to communicate these needs, find some quiet time alone to check in and assess how you can best support each other in this time. If you have children, the same applies to them. Create space for everyone to voice their needs and constructively address them.
- Carve out quality couple time even in the midst of the chaos. Set aside time, even if just for 15 minutes, to cuddle, talk, or eat together with no distractions.
- Carve out quality alone time to reflect on your internal well-being. Are you sleeping, eating, and exercising? Are you doing intellectually challenging things to remain alert and attentive? How are your productivity levels?
- For impending transitions with lead time, try to anticipate how things will actually change. If your youngest child is “launching” and going off to college, you and your partner will have the house all to yourselves again. Instead of referring to yourselves as “empty nesters,” think of all of the ways that you can use this time to reignite passions that fell to the wayside over the years. Also talk with each other about the logistics: how much food do we need to buy at the grocery store now? What do we do with the now-empty bedroom(s)? Will we have more time for vacations?
- Be flexible enough to change the plan if/when necessary. Remember that it is incredibly rare for everything to work out exactly as planned. Be prepared to make necessary adjustments as a team.
- Bring in outside support when needed. Sometimes, it’s impossible to work through things on your own or only with your partner/spouse. That’s okay. Support groups and therapy are excellent resources that can be extremely helpful in successfully navigating stressful life transitions. You’ll emerge with a renewed sense of your strengths, a stronger connection with your partner, and a clearer path for the next steps forward.
- Enjoy the ride of embarking on a new adventure together! Not all transitions are bad, nor do they all have to be stressful. If you and your partner are adjusting to parenthood, remember to take a moment to reflect on the small, beautiful being in front of you. If you’re moving across the country, think of it as an opportunity to meet new people and learn new things about yourself and your partner along the way.
We all know that life is a journey. When you learn to embrace it with all of its highs and lows and make a point to enjoy the scenery along the way, you allow for a much fuller, deeper, and richer experience than you would have otherwise. Who would want to have it any other way?
Are you anticipating a major life transition in the near future? How are you preparing for it with your partner? Let me know in the comments below!
Shy Porter, MS, LGMFT, provides individual, couple, and family therapy services in our downtown Bethesda, MD office. Call or email her today to set up your first appointment, or a complimentary telephone consultation. firstname.lastname@example.org or 240-752-7650, ext. 6