I am not a New Year’s resolutions kind of gal. I am more of a “lifestyle,” approach person, attempting to maintain preferred habits and patterns with consistent evaluation and correction throughout the year. There is nothing magical about January 1st for me, and the word “resolution,” is too loaded, as it often sets people up for failure. The grandiosity is what bothers me. People often set themselves up with grand expectations. When they can’t meet those self-imposed expectations, they get discouraged and give up.
I know that the start of a new year is when many people are aware of life changes they want to make for the future, and as a marriage therapist, of course, I wonder how this motivation may be used to enhance relationships.
When I meet with people who are contemplating what to do about their marriages, I ask them to ponder, “What will my marriage look like in five years if nothing changes?” I follow this query up with specific considerations, such as the impact on children as they developmentally advance during that time period, or how the individual will feel being five years older in the same situation. When people carefully consider the future, this often impacts their present opinions and behaviors.
There is a common saying in therapy that, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” This concept plays out repetitively when people are mired down in destructive patterns. My reason for asking the aforementioned question is to help people understand that if they want things to be different, they must start changing something NOW in order to avoid feel stuck in the future.
Certainly, there are environmental changes that can peripherally impact people passively, even if they aren’t taking proactive measures to change their situations. Economies shift, children grow older, financial pressures change, etc. In some cases, it is true that marital situations can just improve on their own if the couple just waits until the kids get a little older, or if other current stressors dissipate over time.
More often than not, it seems, couples set themselves on a passive course toward marital drift. While they are stuck, or waiting for something to change, their disconnection can increase, resentment can build, and hopelessness can set in, keeping couples from ever repairing the relationship.
If the patterns you currently perpetuate in your marriage are leading you toward the course you want in five years, congratulations! That’s great! Your children will thank you for it, and you will likely transition into new life cycle stages with grace.
However, if when you ask yourself the above question, the scenario appears bleak and burdensome, ask yourself what small changes you can make today in order to shift your life to what you want. For some people, that might mean changing an attitude or apologizing. For some, it might mean altering expectations or finding small ways to show appreciation for a spouse. It could be as simple as going back and looking at wedding photos to remember why your partner is the one you chose. If you want to feel closer physically, find a small way to demonstrate physical affection.
If you are in an abusive situation, it might mean making a call to a domestic violence shelter to get information about how to leave an abusive relationship. If you are addicted to a substance, it might mean googling addictions recovery information, or asking a friend for support.
If you know you want the marriage to be different, but feel overwhelmed about where to start, google, “How to improve my marriage,” and resources galore will be at your fingertips. Simply reading about marital improvement is a legitimate small change.
I have heard it said that the hardest part about going running is putting on your running shoes. I can relate to this as a runner. I often dread the thought of experiencing physical pain for an hour, and delay putting on my shoes, but once they are on and I am dressed for running, it is easy to take those few steps out the door and continue on until I am finished. Sometimes I have even said to myself, “Just put on your shoes and then see how you feel,” with no firm commitment to the entire process, recognizing that once they are on, I still have the prerogative to take them off without running if I choose.
I think this principle applies to marriages. Sometimes the first step toward changing the trajectory is the largest hurdle, and yet waiting for things to happen is a very risky proposition when it comes to relationships.
If you want your marriage to look differently in five years, write down the small things that are within your power to change things and choose one. I also tell people that if they are making changes and nothing is changing in their marriage, then that is important feedback information for evaluating the next step. Unfortunately, sometimes that might mean ending a destructive relationship, but even the painful process of ending a relationship is preferable to feeling powerless and victimized by others, for most people.
Remember, if you feel so overwhelmed that the suggestions in this post seem like too much work, just ask yourself the question and write down the answer. That’s all. Odds are that it will at least promote thinking about changing current behaviors, and that is just the start of potentially huge change.