In Flux

Embracing transitions and change

When Someone You Love Changes and Forgets to Tell You

How to avoid being blindsided in your relationship

Sometimes the people we marry turn out to be strangers to us. The person we live with and share an intimate life with may be harboring a secret life that doesn’t include us. I’m not talking about a double life, or about the normal private thoughts each of us has on a regular basis and won’t share. This is about someone living one life, wanting another, and then one day telling their partner that the relationship is over.

In some instances, a partner’s demand to end the relationship comes seemingly out of the blue to the other; the surprised partner is simply clueless. You’d expect that a spouse would detect that something was wrong—some change in behavior, resentment, emotional withdrawal. But sometimes there are no overt signs. And if a partner doesn’t see it coming, there’s a sense of shock that comes with the realization. A spouse’s silent movement away may even be seen by some as nothing less than a betrayal. Yes, maybe there had been some complaints and yes, maybe there was some pigheadedness but often there is no real indication to them that things had gotten so bad as to warrant a divorce.

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Once confronted with divorce, the sad thing is that while the unsuspecting partner may now be willing to do whatever it takes to make the marriage work, for the other it’s already too late; they’re simply not interested on working on the marriage any longer. In essence, that partner has been “divorcing” for a long time but just hasn’t gotten around to telling their spouse about it. The dissatisfied partner may have given a lot of private thought to where they are in their life and decided that it’s just not good enough. Perhaps the unhappy partner was no longer on the same lifestyle page as their spouse. Maybe one’s expectations of a spouse or for the marriage has radically shifted.

But the reason for leaving may be a deeply personal one. Maybe a partner feels there’s no room in the relationship for their feelings and/or point of view. Perhaps there’s deep-seated resentment that they’re being ignored or put down, or a sense that their emotional needs are not being met. Maybe a spouse has tried to address these issues but hasn’t been taken seriously, or has had their request for some kind of change (or at the very least, a discussion about change) refused. Conversely, a partner may want to avoid conflict altogether so instead of having the difficult discussion they just keep on yesing their partner, indicating that things are okay when it’s far from that.

As is often the case, by the time a partner wants to end the marriage they’ve been working on an exit strategy. How does a relationship reach a point of no return without a partner being aware that it has happened? When the lines of communication are so far down for so long, and frustrations and resentments have eaten away at whatever intimacy still exists, there may be nothing more to be said or done. Unfortunately, one partner may have felt forced to play the whole thing out in their head and when they’re finished, the relationship is over.

So, how does one avoid being blindsided?

Know Thyself. It’s virtually impossible to have a healthy and satisfying intimate relationship with another person unless you’ve already done the work on yourself, or at least are a continuing “work in progress.” We can’t expect others to provide us with an intimate experience if we don’t know what intimacy is in the first place.

It’s essential to develop a healthy relationship with yourself, first and foremost. The intimacy we experience within ourselves serves as our own personal relational barometer. The better we know ourselves the better we’re able to understand and choose those significant others that best mirror the kind of life experience we want to have in relationship.

Moderate your expectations. A clever soul remarked that, “Expectations are the termites of a relationship.” They eat away, slowly and silently eroding the very foundation of a relationship. Expectations, especially unrealistic ones, leave little room for things to unfold as they naturally should, rather than the way we want them to. Competing expectations create tension and strife between partners and undermine the ability to compromise.

Your relationship is a work in progress. Who you and your partner are the day you marry or commit to a long-term relationship may not be the same person you’ll be in a year or two, five, or ten. Make the effort to spend time airing differences, checking in with your partner on key issues within the marriage. Be respectful. Listen with undivided attention. If you can’t agree, strive for a fair compromise.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, their own point of view. One should never fear openly expressing an idea or opinion. When the lines of communication are shut down, personal expression is prevented. Unexpressed feelings don’t just go away; they silently and slowly fester, building frustration and resentment.

Choose happiness over being right. Happiness implies contentment with whatever happens. Letting things unfold without the interference of preconceived notions follows an organic, natural rhythm that lends itself well to creative solution.

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life and other books.

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