Navigating Change in Relationships

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“I don’t feel like you are the person I once fell in love with. I can’t recognize you anymore.”

It’s not uncommon for couples to reach a point of painful realization where the only feasible solution appears to be ending the relationship. This is especially more common for couples during times of emerging adulthood (ages between 18 to 29 according to development psychologists) where self-change for both individuals is more pronounced.

Why do couples fail to navigate these changes and differences that naturally occur in relationships, even when they once believe they’ve found someone compatible?

Even if we give you your most compatible match, that match is not going to be someone that is 100% similar to you. And nobody can guarantee that you are going to stay similar, especially during times of emerging adulthood. 

So what makes some people better at navigating these differences and changes in relationships than others? What is the key to a long-lasting relationship when your unity with someone is constantly open to the threat of divergence? 

The Science Behind “You Have To Know & Love Yourself Before Loving Others” 

Understanding the self is crucial to understanding how people navigate their relationships with others. One intriguing concept that comes up in developmental psychology discussions is self concept clarity —the extent to which people feel certain about whether they possess a clear and coherent sense of themselves. 

Being in a relationship requires us to expand ourselves. We adopt some personality traits and values of our significant others, as well as some of their hobbies and lifestyle preferences. These become integral to our understanding of ourselves, helping us achieve greater levels of self-concept clarity in healthy relationships. 

However, it’s important to note that when people walk into relationships with low self-concept clarity, it’s often associated with resistance to self-expansion and subsequent poor relationship outcomes. 

Findings of a study that looks at the correlation between relationship satisfaction and self concept clarity suggest that individuals with lower self-concept clarity are more likely to perceive the differences and changes their partner experiences as threats to the relationship, and less likely as opportunities to expand the self. One likely explanation for this is that these individuals will often resist their own self-change, let alone a relationship-induced one, because of the risk associated with increasing the already existing confusion they have about themselves. This makes them more likely to avoid activities that may expand the self, and instead engage in activities that aim at “changing” their significant others (e.g., relational conflict) which is associated with poor relationship outcomes.

Having a consistent sense of self encourages you to see differences and changes as opportunities to grow within the relationship, rather than seeing these differences as threats.