#057: Can We Change After 20 Years of Marriage? It Depends
Congratulations! Against the odds, you‘re both still together.
Any relationship that lasts more than a decade deserves special recognition.
Yet, with that recognition comes the realization that just because your relationship is firmly established doesn’t mean there aren’t issues, challenges, and problems you want to address. However, many long-term couples like you wonder:
“Can we really change after so many years of marriage?”
Not long ago, a new client asked me the same question, in reference to their 20 years of marriage. Did I really think they could change?
It was a challenging question, more challenging than most. Why? Because the answer really depends on several factors. But when a client is hurting and hopeful, a long, drawn out, expert explanation poured into the ears of someone seeking a simple YES or NO is tough for any therapist.
Of course, I could’ve said any of the following:
“Sure! I’ve seen many couples change even after 30 years” (which I have)
“If you really want to”
“If you’re ready to work on it”
But I didn’t.
Instead, I said: “It depends”
He said: “It depends? On what?”
“It depends on your willingness to embrace change”
What does my answer really mean?
Consider the wise observations of Ada Calhoun in her New York Times article To Stay Married, Embrace Change:
Feeling oppressed by change or lack of change; it’s a tale as old as time. Yet at some point in any long-term relationship, each partner is likely to evolve from the person we fell in love with into someone new — and not always into someone cuter or smarter or more fun. Each goes from rock climber to couch potato, from rebel to middle manager, and from sex-crazed to sleep obsessed.
She goes on to say that rather than holding on to nostalgia and the old versions of each other (which “fuels resentment”), it is critical to discover “ways to be happy with different versions of that person.”
Ms. Calhoun expressed what I’ve been doing in my own marriage of 22 years, and how I’ve been trying to help couples every day in my practice.
For example, consider your partner as they are right now. I think if you think things haven’t changed, you haven’t really looked at your marriage or at yourself.
Do you really believe that they are the person you married 20 years ago? Are you the same person?
In truth, not much of those people really exist. And that’s OKAY. You just adapted to that person every day or every year, so you never really noticed the change. And when you did notice, you felt upset, unhappy or cheated somehow.
Now, you may be looking for a happier change and believe that if you haven’t been able to find it with your spouse, that it has to exist somewhere outside your marriage.
Not so! Your current relationship can change after 20 years… It can’t help but change.
However, Ms. Calhoun and I agree that you and your partner must EMBRACE the change that has occurred for it to bring you closer and not drive you apart.
“In order to stay married, simply don’t get divorced”
I heard someone say that once. Sounds silly, right? But maybe not. What we’re really talking about is having different, meaningful relationships with the same person. In other words, we can have 3 or 4 marriages with the same spouse!
Human beings change, evolve, and grow after their 20’s more than we may think we do. So do marriages.
The way you were when you met is not how you were when you got your first home, or when you had little ones running around. Life transitions change us as human beings and, as a result, they change our relationships.
It makes sense, doesn’t it, that a ‘forever” relationship would undergo many transitions over the years?
Try a little exercise:
- List how many marriages have you had with your spouse (the same one)?
- Think about why you consider each one a marriage of its own.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will get to a significant number of marriages with the same person. Some better than others.
Only perfect people who have perfect marriages and perfect lives are always happy in loving and passionate marriages forever. Let me know if you know anyone like this – I want to know their secrets!
Acceptance + Perseverance + Reinvention= Lasting Love
In a nutshell: If you’ve been feeling like you and your partner haven’t been able to have a meaningful conversation without fighting or you haven’t been able to resolve issues for quite a while. It’s time to embrace this change.
If you have been miserable, rejected, unsatisfied in your marriage for many years, accept that you will have to embrace this as a shift from your former, happier marriage.
But don’t stay stuck there! Move forward! Persevere with your spouse. Continue on to another change, essentially another marriage, with the SAME person. Reinvent your relationship.
Consider this illustration:
Person A is about to get married. Person B is 20 years into a marriage.
What does person B wish for that is different than what person A wishes for?
Person A: “I hope I’ll love my soon-to-be spouse as much as I love them today, I hope we’ll always be open and honest, I hope we will be there for each other in sickness and in health, make each other laugh, etc.”
Person B: I hope our love will persevere through the challenges waiting for us, I hope we will continue to reinvent our marriage to fit how we change as humans, I hope we stay together because I really like us.
Person B gets it. Embrace each incarnation of your partner and the evolution of your marriage. If you acknowledge and embrace them, you are bound to believe that change is possible and grow deeper in love. Because, honestly, not only is change possible, it happens whether we like it or not. Change together to stay together.
I do hope this was helpful and left you a little more hopeful about your ability to change your marriage after many years. For more support and information, please visit my page regarding couples therapy or contact me for a consultation soon.
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