Over the course of a human life, while many of us remain true to form in an astonishing number of ways, we also grow and change.
Of course, there are any number of things that might change about us over the course of our lives. I no longer drink cow’s milk. I’ve grown to appreciate country music. And I used to be a person who was never going to have a child, but I am now the deeply smitten steward of a 5-year-old girl. But it seems a big part of our commitment to other people is the promise that we will not change in certain fundamental ways—what is marriage, if not the promise to keep being the person we always were? We bank on our person keeping the essence of their person-ness until death do us part.
But perhaps a better approach to relationships would be to accept and embrace the certainty of a future change in ourselves and others. To expect it, even. Even though it may be true that our core selves are formed by 30, that doesn’t mean we are always in touch with that self, or that it can’t still evolve after exposure to new ideas and experiences.
Assume people will change in the following ways:
Whether or Not to Have Kids (and How Many)
You may have kids and wish you hadn’t. You may have one and wish you had two, or have one and say you don’t want two and then decide you do want a second and write an essay about it, or have three and wish you had one, and every iteration in between. Some people who say they don’t want kids do end up wanting them later on, maybe even with someone else who somehow changed their mind. Some things are impossible to know without having done them, and one of those things is having kids.
I know it’s often sexist and paternalistic to tell women to not do anything too rash because they might change their minds about having kids later on. But it can also be the truth. Likewise, a partner who previously wanted children may realize they actually don’t. And while these kinds of existential flip-flops are fucked up and difficult to navigate—and can ultimately result in the end of a relationship—I think it’s important to not view such changes as a betrayal, but rather as side effects of the largeness and complexity that is being human.
Belief in God
Many people find religion all of a sudden—after a health crisis, death of a loved one, or seemingly at random. Some people lose their religion after similar experiences. But in relationships where two people find themselves at odds about faith, it can still work out; you can still share common values, and you can learn to respect each other’s beliefs. In an NPR story from Deena Prichep about one such married couple—the believer is an oncology nurse, the atheist is a teacher—experts say that the tools that make such relationships go are what make any relationship good. Prichep speaks to a Georgetown professor who studies interfaith relationships, who explains:
“They listen and they talk and they try and understand one another. A number of them mentioned humor,” she says. “You could probably take that list of advice that they would give and use it for any situation, whether it’s religion or just raising children or getting along in the world.”
Though the persistent statistic that the average person changes careers seven times in a lifetime is unsubstantiated, it is widely accepted that job hopping is the new normal. Expect that anyone you’re with over the long haul is going to change jobs, salaries, and possibly careers; they might choose to pursue a new path of education, either due to their own interests or shifts in the economy.
This should not be troubling, even if you liked the idea of your lawyer girlfriend who is now a less well-compensated nonprofit worker. Rather, it should be considered a refreshing way to move through life: with variety.
The more we accept and understand the spectrum of human sexuality, the more we must grapple with the fact that sexual attraction can change over a lifetime. It’s complicated. There are no hard numbers on how often this happens given that it’s very nuanced, and ideally it becomes less traumatizing as greater acceptance of fluid sexualities emerges.
But if you try not to think of everyone as fitting into tidy little categories in the first place, notions of shifting attraction don’t have to wreck everything. Besides, it’s really the commitment to the relationship that matters most.
Being With You
Finally, one major thing that can change in your relationship is the other person’s willingness to be in it with you. In spite of the fact that we are all allegedly searching for “the one,” most relationships don’t work out. That is why it is wise and true to prepare for the idea that the one you’re currently in might not, either.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! Always do what you can to keep the love alive, including not losing your shit over the above things your partner might change their mind about. But that said, it’s okay to let the chips fall and start over. Sometimes, it’s a blessing in disguise.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.