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Change is difficult – but can marriage challenge you for the better?

Every relationship creates a “system,” marriage perhaps being one of the most well defined.  And one rule about systems is that, in general, they seek homeostasis, and they don’t like change. We’re comfortable when we know what to expect.

Therefore, when one person within a marriage decides to change and do something fundamentally different, it disrupts the system and creates an unbalance for all involved.

This change is then often met with a “change back” message from the other partner — it could be anything from a subtle suggestion or resistance, all the way to an over-the-top massive response filled with rage.

But these changes might also include things like being more honest and transparent; starting a physical fitness program; spending more time with your girlfriends; dealing with an addiction; initiating sex in a powerful, direct way; or telling your partner what you’re feeling.

When one person makes a personal change it will unsettle the other person, even if the change is positive.

The Relationship Teeter-Totter

Picture a teeter-totter as your marriage. When your spouse initiates change, one side of the teeter-totter goes up and upsets the systemic balance.

If you resist this change from your spouse, he or she has the choice of holding on and trying to continue the new behavior, or to give in and let your system regain homeostasis (bringing the teeter-tooter back into balance).

Your spouse might decide to hold on and continue the new behavior.  If you value your relationship, then you face a choice:

1. Find some way to pull your spouse back down into systemic homeostasis to relieve your anxiety (in other words, you get things back to the way they were).

2. Or you can challenge yourself, and start growing in your own way.

If you challenge yourself and start to grow (often while soothing your own anxiety rather than trying to manage it), your side of the teeter-totter will go up.  This will once again upset the relationship system in its own unique way. Your spouse can then either try to bring you back down, or challenge him or herself in a new way and rise up to meet you.

Photo by kosabe

When two people keep raising the bar for each other with challenges, the upward growth of both individuals (and the relationship) is continuous AND limitless. And this is what keeps a marriage fully alive.

An example:

Steve and Michelle are somewhat lazy and out of shape. Steve decides to start a new physical fitness program that includes regular workouts and a healthy diet. As Steve starts working out and eating better, Michelle feels anxious about Steve’s newly found passion and his physical changes. He is slimming down and looking fit, has more energy, is more active, and begins dressing better.

Michelle notices other women noticing her husband. Even though Michelle likes how her husband is changing, she misses the old days when they could share Ben & Jerry’s and sit on the couch every night watching TV.

She even has some pangs of insecurity that he will no longer find her attractive and will leave her for another woman.

In this state of anxiety, Michelle has two options:

1.  She can give Steve “change back messages.” She can insist that he is working out too much and neglecting her and the family. She’ll warn him not to get too thin. She’ll bring home his favorite flavor of ice cream. She’ll invite him to stay home and watch their favorite show instead of going to the gym. She may withdraw. She may rage about some seemingly unrelated issue.

2.  Or she can challenge herself and start going for a walk every morning. She can start doing some of her own research on nutrition and share her discoveries. As she progresses and starts feeling more energized and better about how she looks, she might challenge herself to train for a half-marathon.

Her new-found energy and commitment might now cause Steve to feel a little unsettled.

Maybe he has reached a plateau in his own progress, or even started to slip into some old habits.  So when he sees his spouse moving to the next level, he also has a choice to make:

Try to bring her back down, or rise to the challenge.

The process continues.

Second Order vs. First Order Change

Photo by lululemon athletica

These shifts in a system are called “second order change.” They are fundamentally different than the type of change that most people try to create in their relationships — “first order change.”

An example of first order change might be one partner nagging, bribing, or threatening his partner to try and get her to lose weight. If Steve takes this approach with Michelle and makes her anxious enough, or induces enough neurotic guilt, she might actually starve herself and drop a few pounds. But unfortunately, as soon as her anxiety dissipates, she will typically revert back to where she was before.

First order change has a strong attachment to outcome, and rarely produces long-term growth or change, because it does nothing to fundamentally alter the system.

It is also unloving because it says, “I don’t love you just the way you are. You must change in order for me to love you.”

If you have ever been in a relationship with someone who tried to change you, you know just how badly this feels.

Attempts at first order change ignore the fact that things exist the way they do because both people have created them to exist the way they do.

Second order change, on the other hand, has no attachment to outcome and is, therefore, unpredictable. It happens when something fundamental shifts within the system. Plus, it has the most potential for creating significant long-term change within the relationship.

Second order change creates a great unknown — it sets the system into uncharted waters. When things shift in a relationship, it becomes impossible to predict where things will go — but the only way to discover new territories is to set sail and see what new worlds you can find.

If you’re interested in learning more about this idea and how to use it to help your marriage, check out my upcoming online class, Blow Up My Marriage.

How do you see the teeter-totter play out in your family?

Reading Time:

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  1. amy

    I have a friend who is not so serious with her life but when she got married, all things changed. I do believe that marriage can make a change.

  2. Jen P

    Marriage is supposed to change it. It is supposed to help you grow and become united with your spouse. I don’t like this post a whole lot because its very much of the tone that “he is living his life one way and she lives her life her way”.
    When a man and woman become husband and wife they become ONE. Their two lives a now one. And that one life is about love and compromise. Not finding any way possible to maintain their individuality despite being married.

    • Corey

      I hear where you’re coming from Jen, and I want to add this one point. While I do believe that a couple becomes one, this is in a spiritual sense. The prototype for marriage is found in the Trinity. 3 beings, each their own being, yet one.

      Our individuality is extremely important to marriage because it is the space between use that houses the passion, eroticism, love and energy that can fuel marriage for the long run of life.

      • Vina

        I also understand where you are coming from Jen, but I do agree with Corey that we need to maintain our individuality, because the beautiful mystery of marriage is that we are one entity yet separate individuals. I really strongly believe in that sacred space between people, married or not. True intimacy is only possible I believe when there is that healthy space. I’m not a therapist but I am learning this from personal experience.

      • Vina

        Oh, I want to add too, that generally, we women have this tendency to get our identities get so wrapped up in our marriage/mothering/relationships that maintaining this space is essential. Corey, would you speak to that “general” gender difference? I hear this so much among women but it’s not so much a problem among men. What do you think? (Love this post by the way!)

        • Corey

          The general rule is women will sacrifice themselves for the sake of their relationships, men will sacrifice their relationship for the sake of themselves.

          Women are generally more relational beings than men.

          I think this design is intentional. I believe that God designed men and women differently so their would be a continual conflict between them. But this conflict is not at all a bad thing – it’s actually what fuels the growth of each of them.

          There’s a lot more to be said on this, but the comments aren’t a great place for it.

  3. Sarah Clachar

    Truth well-spoken. Too often we stick with individual agendas while marriage and family are really a team sport. You pretty much put the individual second to larger needs and goals that in the end benefit you as an individual.

    An alternative solution for the couple discussed is to make fitness activities and healthy eating a couple activity or family activity. Yes, it will take some discussion to get on the same page at first. But a heartfelt discussion of the health risks, the need for more energy, the costs of poor health, the concerns about their children getting overweight and the adult problems that follow can lead to having a commitment from both of them to make fitness a family activity.

    Write up a goal sheet that’s family oriented – or a family mission statement as discussed in an earlier post. And then become each other’s personal trainer/cheerleader and help each other get out and get moving and appreciate the results together.

  4. Ella @ Frugal Ella

    I’d never thought about differentiating change in a first-order, second-order way. But my own life has proven that second-order is the ONLY way for successful, lasting change. Even if first-order doesn’t nag your spouse out the door…it might even provoke the change you seek…they will always revert back to their old ways.

  5. Sarah @ Fat Little Legs

    Thanks for this post! I REALLY needed it. My marriage and my “self” have undergone some really BIG changes in the past 1-1/2 years. I’ve lost 103 pounds! While I thrilled about this, it is so interesting reading this because it makes so much sense, and I can relate it so vividly to my own life right now. Don’t get me wrong, my husband has been great in supporting my WL efforts, but our marriage has been rocky… I think I’m beginning to understand why a little more.

  6. Andrea Pokorny

    Our whole marriage (seven years) has been a teeter-totter. Thankfully, all the changes have made our marriage and love for each other only stronger.

    Sometimes, changes happen within us because of outside factors too. I lost both my parents within two years…that changes things. Having no kids to three kids within in four years…that changes things.

    We adjust, we learn and grow and at the end of the day, if we are kissing each other goodnight, we made it! (for that day) =)

    • Corey

      Sounds like you’ve had to hold on tight to the relationship teetor-totter lately, Andrea.

      The tough outside changes in life do really force us to grow and adjust. Glad to hear you and your husband are enjoying the ride as much as you can.

  7. Robin

    A great post! I have been married to my husband for 7 happy years this weekend!

  8. Jenna

    I’m not married. But I firmly believe that your spouse should always challenge you to be a better person (and ultimately help you in that quest). So yes, I think marriages and relationships should always change and grow better and stronger.

  9. Andrea (@ Puppy Dog Tales)

    What a great post…so true. I’m always hoping for that second order change with my husband in terms of working out and eating healthfully….it’s slowly happening…slow being the key word!

  10. G.

    Thanks for this post! Now I understand why my husband kept ridiculing the evening course I took. I also understand that I have in the past been guilty of first order change nagging regarding him giving up smoking. Thankfully he has made it out of his own accord in the meantime and is now in his 8th month as a non-smoker.

    One point of criticism though, if I may: there was no example given for 2nd order change and I have to admit that I do not really comprehend how to bring it about.

    • Corey

      Examples of 2nd order change are a bit more difficult to come by.

      I always use the analogy of your home thermostat when thinking about systems. It is set at a temperature and it does everything possible to keep the house at that temperature. First order change is the heat turning on the heat the house, or the AC to cool it. Second order change is setting the temperature at a new level.

      In life this would be things like setting clear boundaries with others, saying no in order to live according to your values and wants more, or as the example in the post states- sticking to the exercise plan because she wanted to and it was important to her, regardless of the pressure from others.

      Hope this helps.

      • G.

        Thanks Corey, it does!

  11. Alison

    I really like the teeter-totter image. A fulfilling relationship for me is a symbiosis of balance and challenge. Why challenge? Because it causes you to make an effort and question yourself, your lifestyle, your view on life etc. This shouldn’t lead to self-doubt but to self-improvement. In a perfect relationship both partners are the best they can be.

  12. Hillary

    Really enjoyed this post. We have been married 7 years and after having our third child are ready to amp it up and consciously make it even better. Thanks for the inspiration.

  13. Gabriela Peters

    I find this post very informative.
    I will pass this along to some of my online friends,
    as I find it will relate to them as well.
    Thank You for the interesting information.

  14. soultravelers3

    I think marriage can be perhaps the best “sandpaper” on earth and can challenge one for the better. We’ve been married for almost 20 years so have been through many changes together. I think adding a child or children to the marriage makes the biggest change because then there are more facets.

    We’ve been on an open ended world tour since 2006, so definitely have learned so much through each other as we live a life filled with ongoing change.

  15. Daisy

    Very insightful. My boyfriend and I have been together for over 10 years and I have to say it’s been quite an interesting journey throughout!

  16. Tricia

    Thank you for such an encouraging post. My husband and I have been married for 6 years now and I have began my weight loss journey. This post just hits home when it comes to change. But we don’t want to go back to how it was but make it better. We are not in a bad relationship just kind of stuck in that same old relationship every day…

  17. Sarah Bruce

    After reading the blog and a few posts, I’m not sure how I feel. In my own marriage, for a while it was both of us working towards change for us as a whole, now it seems like we’re both doing things separately.
    Maybe we need counseling, it seems like I’ve been going, going, going trying to change to make things better, but every time I try to get my husband to jump in I get nothing but negativity. Today he actually told me to quit my job “if I felt so overwhelmed”, even though its my job that’s keeping us from going under because he keeps taking days off “because he feels icky”.
    I would love it if my trying to make things better would inspire him, but it seems as though as I do more he thinks it gives him leeway to do less.

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