Relationships: Routine & Change
My guess is you’re not a fan of change. Most people aren’t, which makes what I want to talk to you about today that much more exciting. As a couple’s therapist a question that I hear far too often is “how did we get here?” The answer to that question, of course, differs to a degree depending on what they’ve come in to talk about. However, one of the conclusions that couples usually come to is that they’re communication, at some point or another, fell apart. Couples stopped talking with each other and started talking at each other. It’s not an uncommon experience amongst couples. Many couples are aware they’re not as effective at communicating with each other as they would like to be but for one reason or another they don’t do anything about it. In fact, on average couples will attempt to deal with/manage the issue at hand for seven years before they hit a breaking point and decide to seek professional help.
So what does change have to do with communication? Well, when we stop communicating, we stop keeping up with the subtle changes that occur in our partner and within our relationship. This pattern over time can lead to dissatisfied/conflictual relationships and sometimes another common statement I hear from couples: “I don’t even recognize the person they’ve become.”
Why is Change Uncomfortable in the First Place and How Do We Attempt to Fix it?
Change implies the unknown and thinking about/dealing with variables that are outside our immediate sense of control. That’s scary, and whether you’re aware of it or not, your body attempts to prep for that unknown by releasing a chemical called cortisol which can make you feel stressed and/or anxious. One of the ways we choose to protect ourselves from the terror of the unknown/the unpredictable is to create structure – Structure, which you might eventually start calling routine. Routine’s are great, they afford us a sense of predictability and in turn a sense security and safety as we go about our day and as we move forward through our life. They also serve as a magnifying glass to highlight and even amplify moments outside of the routine (e.g. You remember Tuesday because one of your co-workers, Carl, brought homemade cookies to work and shared with everyone). If Carl brought cookies everyday it wouldn’t have been as exciting, it would have just been another day of Carl bringing his cookies to work.
Routine: Too Much of a Good Thing
Here’s the downside... Overtime, our perfectly natural and even needed relational routines start to lose their sheen of safety and security and can become monotonous. Of course, change still occurs to provide brief moments of reprieve from the monotony (i.e. couples tend to move in together, get married, purchase a house, become parents, etc.) but at a significantly slower rate, thereby tilting and unbalancing the scale of routine vs. change. If you start feeling the effects of monotony, it’s time for something to change.
Bringing Back the Balance
Remember the start of your relationship? Everything was new, unknown and exciting, and perhaps a bit anxiety provoking too [in the butterflies in your stomach, best of ways] but nonetheless you had a desire to continue pursuing the other person. For every inquiry answered there was another curiosity around the corner that continued to fuel the conversation and the connection. People assume that those types of conversations only happen in the beginning of a relationship because over time you run out of questions to ask that you don’t already have an answer to. Fortunately, that assumption is wrong. Whether you’re five years in or fifty, you and your partner are constantly growing and changing, and all you need to do is a bit of curiosity and the desire to find out what’s changed.
Never Stop Dating Your Significant Other
To reinforce the notion of balance as well as the idea that routines are not terrible let me tell you one routine every relationship should have: Date Nights/Days. If you and your partner are not taking time out of your schedule to enjoy the relationship, then stop what you’re doing and find a way to fit this in. When I say “date” I don’t necessarily mean a formal, fancy and extravagant, date (although those type of dates can be useful now and again). Instead I mean literally finding and scheduling time in your calendar to be with your significant other. The keys to successful dates are consistency, counter-routine and conversation.
Consistency: For many, it’s not possible to set aside a full night once a week for a date and that’s fine, but what about once every two weeks or three weeks? If not a full day/night, think about trying to manage a few hours. Whatever you both decide, make it as fixed as possible and put it on your calendar.
Counter-to-routine: While the frequency and consistency of dates can be routine, the actual date itself should not be. If you and your partner typically go out for dinner and then to a movie, try something different like making dinner and then working on a puzzle together. Try and find activities that allow you to work together and collaborate!
Conversation: May seem like a no-brainer but often couples engage in dates that limit the amount of time they can speak to each other (e.g. dinner and a movie – unless you’re ‘those people’ that talk in movies you’re limiting yourself to conversing just over dinner). Additionally, I want to focus on the type of conversations you have. As I mentioned earlier, several couples fall prey to statement conversations wherein they talk at each other rather than with each other; few questions are asked and/or conversation stays relatively surface level. Shake things up a bit, try asking open-ended questions. These can be light and fun (“if you could have a superpower what would it be and why?”) or personal and meaningful (“Where do you see us as a couple in five years?”). The beautiful thing about the personal/meaningful questions is that an answer you get one day may change entirely in a year. These questions open the door for unknown and help rebalance the sense of routine vs change in the relationship.
Don’t get Discouraged!
Opening your relationship to a bit more change can be uncomfortable at first, especially if your relationship has favored routine for a while. There will no doubt be a few challenges that slow you down or make you want to jump back to the safety of routine but remember the task of maintaining balance is important and fortunately you’re not alone on this venture!
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate