Things change, people say. Well, people can change, too, and sometimes, they pick the worst times to do that.
Like after a wedding, for example, just as the happy couple is getting into the joys and expectations of married life. Or, perhaps, in the more common scenario, it happens a bit later on in a marriage.
Suddenly, one half of the couple seems very different than before – demanding, argumentative, uncooperative, selfish, maybe unfaithful; it can be any change in personality, any aberrant behavior – and the beginning of a trying time.
It can be also a tremendous challenge and much more difficult to rectify, of course, than two people, who are just dating, who can more easily go their separate ways without all of the baggage and legal complications of wedded life. Still, if committed and deeply involved, it may be just as important for them to try to stay together as for a married couple.
So, what are couples in and out of marriage to do? Can the problem partner be changed back? Is that the way to go? Or is compromise the key?
"There are many reasons someone may change, including an affair, and an underlying mood or anxiety disorder," said Anna G. Lipshutz, a licensed clinical social worker in private individual and family psychotherapy practice in Ardmore.
"In each case, the couple should reinvent and invent ways to re-establish better communications, and also try to recover old interests, as well as create new ones, in which they both can participate and share because the goal is to stay together, and to enjoy being with each other," she stated.
Some change can also be for the better, she acknowledged: "If someone were extremely dependent before and now is more independent, for example, that kind of change can be good for the one and can be for the good of both people in the relationship, even though it may prove difficult for both at first."
If the change is one that isn't major – it could be anything slightly to moderately different – and doesn't threaten the fabric of a relationship, then, she continued, it's possible and acceptable to "change" the person back, so to speak.
The Three C's
Through care, communication and commitment.
"The goal is to have a couple grow, change and develop together," said Lipshutz.
But if the change is a major one that causes disruption, no amount of "care, communication and commitment" will keep them together.
Therapists will tell the couple, she noted, to discuss the issue rather than point accusatory fingers.
In the end, any final decisions about the couple's fate must be made by the two together since growth and change are part of any relationship, said Lipshutz, adding that some couples grow/change at "different rates and faster speeds."
If the couple isn't able to make progress on its own – if any change has created a concern for personal safety for one or both partners – then they may want to seek outside professional help. "Seeking help isn't based on time, but on the change causing overwhelming distress. If counseling becomes necessary, it's always best to find a specialist who will address the specific problem, which could be drug addiction, alcohol abuse or aggressive behavior," explained Lipshutz.
For couples perhaps planning marriage, it's best to work on any issues of change well before the wedding, she advised, since personality and behavioral changes aren't likely to change afterward.
David Baron, D.O., professor and chair of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine and Hospital, said that couples must take some basic steps when change occurs. "First, they should identify the cause of the change – is it, for example, a change in attitude?
"Also, the couple must decide if it is an actual change by one person or a perceived [change] by the other partner, who may think he or she notices some change when in fact there really isn't any," said Baron, who did couples therapy in Los Angeles as a member of the University of Southern California faculty in the late 1970s and mid-'80s.
"The best way to know if something has changed is to ask," he said. "The person seeing the change may sense something is different, something is wrong but shouldn't assume it is."
The affected partner should try to understand what the other person is going through, whether it's a mid-life crisis, a depressive episode, a hard time at work, loneliness or some physical change.
"Life events change for a variety of reasons, so try to help the person who has changed in a nonthreatening fashion by being empathetic, loving and caring. Don't blow up and don't discuss the issue of change during an argument," said Baron. "Be very supportive because it could be a psychiatric or psychological problem. If it is, try to get the person help, try to get that person treatment, such as talk therapy. It means loving someone as opposed to demanding that person becomes the way he or she was."
After this, couples must resolve certain key questions, he said, including, for example, if they're staying together solely for the sake of their children.
"They must decide if any change that can't be understood and accepted means ultimately that the marriage is over. It's not always a pleasure to confront these issues, but they have to be dealt with," he said. "There is a high divorce rate in this country, but sometimes it's best to move on."
To Jeanne Meisler, M.D., a Main Line Health System psychiatrist, also in private practice in Bala Cynwyd, change in one or both marriage partners is something "we (psychiatrists and psychologists) see not infrequently for a myriad of causes."
"As someone changes, it may be a pleasing kind of change or otherwise," she said. "If it's a change for the worse, is the cause in the relationship and family, or [is it] external? There are any number of stresses out there.
"If it's the relationship, the couple must first figure out what in the individual's life is causing the change and decide if they want to work it out together.
"Someone can be 'changed back' if the change is a temporary one and as long as it isn't forced by either partner," relayed Meisler. "If permanent, the couple has to either learn to accept it or move on with their lives."