Living Intimately

Notes from the Marriage Checkup Project on walking the intimate path

You Are Not the Person I Married

People change. Life is always on the move.

"You are not the person I married!" How many times have we heard this from each other? We hear it from people we know: "He's just not the same person I married anymore." We hear it from each other: "You've changed. This isn't what I signed up for. I don't even know you anymore." We hear it from our own tangled minds - "This isn't the person I married. Things aren't the same anymore."

We often hear "You are not the person I married" as an indictment. An accusation that things have changed for the worse, that what was known and solid can no longer be relied upon. However, what if the meaning of "you are not the person I married" were turned on its head. What if it meant instead, "How wonderful! Who is this fresh creature here before me? I am so very pleased to meet you. You're my new best friend!"

It makes us uncomfortable to recognize that our partner has changed and that we have changed right along with him. Some part of us desperately wants something solid to hang on to that we can count on as permanent and undeniable. We hope that such solidity will make us safe.

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The truth of the matter is that this is exactly what we have each signed up for. If there is one fundamental truth that we can count on about what it is like to be a human being, it is that things change. People change. Life is always on the move.

This is exactly what we signed up for, whether we knew it at the time or not. We don't know each other anymore. We never really have, because we are fundamentally unknowable. How can you genuinely know someone who is always in flux - always changing into someone new, never still and fixed for even a moment?

For many of us, this is the root of so much of our suffering. We want people and things to stay the same, to not change, to be permanent, and our lives prove to us over and over again that everything changes.

Everything changes.

The key to retaking the richness available in our relationships and continually nurturing intimacy is recognizing a few truisms about intimacy. The first is that no matter how long we have been together, and no matter how much we have learned about each other, we do not know our partners.

As much as we might think we do know our partners, that "knowing" is just that, a thought, an imagined construction. In truth, what we actually know about our partners is but the smallest thimbleful compared to the ocean of complexity that they really embody.

Much more often than not, we have no earthly idea what our partners are thinking. Most of the time we don't even know what we ourselves are thinking, how could we possibly really know what is going on inside our partner's head? Intimacy appears to be best served when we recognize that when we think we know what our partners are thinking, we are in the grip of a strong delusion.  When we recognize that we are deluded by our own assumptions, then we wake up to the very real opportunity to connect with this real, flesh-and-blood person standing here with us.

We do not really know our partner's history, not in its full complexity and not as it changes with the new perspectives that our partner constantly brings to it. We do not really know our partner's emotional world. We do not really know our partner's hopes and dreams, aspirations and fears, suffering and joy. We may sometimes make good guesses. We may have had a pretty good idea about some of these things yesterday, and maybe even somewhat today if our intimate relationship is strong and healthy, but we know nothing of who are partner will be tomorrow or even later today. Our partners are constantly changing and have been since the day we first met and they will continue to change every day until the day we will, inevitably, be parted.

We do not know in what ways our partners have grown and changed since the day we stopped paying attention. We cannot know in what way our partner will grow and change over the course of today, tomorrow, this week, and this year. And perhaps it is this genuine mystery that actually scares us into the fantasy world in which we live comfortably, if numbly, with the imaginary partner who we have constructed for our own convenience. Maybe we, in part, construct and cling to these fabricated partners to protect ourselves from how scary it seems at first to acknowledge that our partner will forever be a mystery to us and that our future with our partner is utterly unknowable.

So, let me be clear. Your partner is not the person you married. Your partner is right now changing right before your eyes.

And thank God. What fresh circle of hell would it be if nothing ever changed? If you were married to exactly the same person who stood with you at the altar?

Research has provided us with some hints about how to live gracefully in an intimate relationship that is constantly changing. First, we have found that partners in the healthiest relationships are always getting to know each other, checking in on each other's days, interested in each other's lives. John Gottman, formerly of the University of Washington and currently director of the Gottman Institute, gathered data showing us that this business of staying connected doesn't have to take a lot of time. In the couples that Gottman studied, the healthiest simply checked in with each other a couple of times a day. Maybe asking about each other's plans for the day and then touching base at some point to find out more about how the day played out. Gottman called this constructing "love maps," meaning simply that these partners kept each other in mind during the day, kept each other close to the heart. Five minutes of genuine presence and loving attentive interest here and there can make a world of difference.

When's the last time you gave your partner five full minutes of undiluted attention? When's the last time you were genuinely and enthusiastically curious about who your partner is becoming today? It doesn't take long. It only takes courage and generosity.

Practice curiosity.

People change.

It might be a cliché, but it is a cliché for a reason. You cannot deny it. You know it in your bones. Your partner has changed. Even the things about your partner that you could swear have never changed and never will, have changed. Nothing is the same.

Of course, the same is equally true about you. You cannot deny it. You know it in your bones. You have changed. Everything about you has changed. Even the things about you that feel like they have tortured you from the very beginning have changed. You are not the same.

Please, do not take this one precious life for granted. Notice how things change. See with fresh eyes who your partner is today. Celebrate your new best friend. "Hello stranger. Fancy meeting you here, Love."

 

 

James Cordova, Ph.D. developer of the Marriage Checkup Project, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and is a leading figure in the more...

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