Although it gives us some security to believe that our partner is fixed in time and will never change, we need the courage to acknowledge that this is merely an illusion.
I met my boyfriend who’s 13 years older than me when his marriage was hanging on the last thread. We became friends, and after his separation, we started dating. One day he showed up at my doorstep fully clothed in motorcycle gear. “Wanna go for a ride?” he asked with a grin.
While we were cruising through the suburbian roads south of Amsterdam, he told me that a few years ago he started questioning his life and the direction he was going. Once he started opening up to friends and family, many of them said that he was having a mid-life crisis. “And now?”, I asked. “Have you recovered from the crisis yet?”
He threw his head back in laughter. “What do you think? I’m riding a motorcycle on a Sunday afternoon with a 25-year-old girlfriend on the back seat!”
We were a cliché and we loved it.
But what troubled me was that his friends and family over-simplified what he was going through. It seems like we’re permitted to explore different paths when we’re in school and in college, but after settling down with a family any shift in personality is automatically called a crisis.
Re-evaluating your personal and professional life as you mature is not a breakdown, though. It’s a breakthrough. It’s not uncommon to re-think our dreams once our financial situation and family life become more stable. It’s a natural part of personal growth and should be celebrated as such.
And yet, women still seem to fear the male mid-life crisis. The internet is full of articles that offer help with recognizing signs that “you’re in trouble”. But blaming any change in our partner on their mid-life crisis essentially comes from fear of being left behind.
It’s what happened to my parents years ago, although — in this case — it was my mother who at the age of 35 stopped hiding her interests in spirituality and the mystical. You can imagine what that did to my father — a lawyer, and a man of logic. While he was refusing to acknowledge this part of her and calling her a witch, they kept growing apart until there was no more common ground to stand on. They divorced when I was 12.
Instead of watching for the warning signs of our partner having a mid-life crisis, we should be watching for the signs of us hampering their growth.
Through the ritual of marriage, we hope to “freeze” our partner in time and space. That’s why we react so strongly when they display new behaviors. Sentences like “you’re not the person I fell in love with”, “since when do you like jazz?”, or “the old you would never say that” are signs of fear that if something changed in our partner, their love for us might change as well.
The worry of being outgrown is real and it makes us defensive when someone around us transforms in any way. Be aware of the alarm bells in your head when you notice new behaviors in your partner. With each criticism, we limit their freedom to be themselves.
Our harsh responses make them afraid to explore what they feel like and who they are. But we also forget that it’s our partner’s unique personality that attracted us in the first place. Once we stop them from growing, learning, and changing, we invite stagnation and boredom into our relationship.
Not only do we expect our partner to remain the same, but we also tend to stick to a certain role in the relationship. If our partner likes a certain trait in us — for example, that we show care through cooking — we tend to stay in character even when we don’t feel like it. Trying to be different than what our partner loves about us is risky, so we prefer safe, tested behaviors.
This aversion to change is the reason why we often stop developing ourselves once we’re in a committed relationship. That’s why some people wake up after years of stagnation and realize they’ve been pretending to be someone they’re not (anymore). By insisting to remain unchanged we deprive our partner of the opportunity to witness and be inspired by our growth.
Never stop evolving. If you display automatic behaviors around your partner, ask yourself if you perhaps feel like doing something else instead. Even small things matter — do you always order white wine for dinner but would rather have a beer? Have your habits become so strong that your partner orders for you, assuming that your taste remains unchanged?
Or perhaps there is a hobby that you’ve been thinking of picking up for years, but you don’t think it fits into the image you have (or your partner has) of yourself. Have you thought of learning to paint but you’ve never considered yourself creative? Or maybe you’re interested in something that your friends and family would consider “weird” at first? That’s the beauty if trying out new things — they don’t need to become part of your identity, but it’s essential for your personal growth that you keep exploring.
Your partner should appreciate your development. Invite them to participate in your changes, and remain calm if they react emotionally. Realize that these strong emotions come from fear of abandonment, so the best thing you can do is show love and appreciation.
Also, realize that it’s a wonderful thing that your loved one is changing. Be grateful to witness their growth. Approach it with curiosity and fascination, just like you did when you first met.
Everyone is entitled to change.