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The Relationship is a Changin’: The Benefits Achieved When Partners Change Together

There is a well-worn saying, often mistakenly attributed to Albert Einstein, suggesting “women marry men hoping they will change. Men marry women hoping they will not.”1 This statement may or may not be true, but highlights an interesting (and understudied) relationship dynamic: Change plays an important role in relationships. It is natural to wonder how long your relationship will last, whether you will fall out of love, whether you’ll have children and what they’ll be like, how your partner will be as a parent, whether you’ll get a divorce, etc. The common denominator in each of these inquiries is that you and your partner will experience your fair share of change along the way. But is this change good? On the one hand, change is an opportunity for growth, but change also threatens stability. Partners may also anticipate or experience different rates of change. Will both partners change in tandem or experience change differently? To address these issues, researchers Anika Cloutier (Queen’s University) and Johanna Peetz (Carleton University) conducted two studies designed to examine how anticipated changes in the self and one’s partner influence views of their relationship.2

In Study 1, a sample of 183 adults from North America (average age = 37.5 years), most of whom (62%) were married, were asked to anticipate general changes in themselves and their partner by placing anticipated change into the following categories: congruent (“Both my partner and I will change”), incongruent (“I will change, but my partner will stay relatively the same”), and staying the same (“Both my partner and I will stay relatively the same”). Participants also completed measures of anticipated change (“Do you feel as though you/your partner will change as a person from now to 1 year from now?”), current relationship satisfaction (“In general, how satisfied are you with your relationship?”), current growth/self-expansion (e.g., “How much do you see your partner as a way to expand your own capabilities?”), and current stability (“How stable (feels consistent through time) is your relationship right now?”).  

In Study 1 46% of participants expected no change, whereas 37% anticipated congruent change, with the remaining 18% anticipating incongruent change. Participants expecting congruent or no change also reported higher personal growth, stability, and relationship quality compared to those who anticipated incongruent change. Analyses that focused on the anticipated degree of change (i.e., not just whether there would be change, but how much change they expected) revealed that partners were less satisfied with their relationships when they thought their partner was going to change a lot while they themselves were not going to change at all.   

In Study 2 the researchers focused more on the nature of anticipated changes with data from 175 North-American adults (average age = 37 years), half of whom were married. Measures paralleled those in Study 1, with a few notable exceptions. The category measure was refined to include 5 instead of 3 categories. Congruent and no change remained the same, with incongruent change divided into 3 possibilities: ‘‘Both my partner and I will change in different directions’’; ‘‘I will change, but my partner will stay relatively the same’’; and ‘‘My partner will change, but I will stay relatively the same’’ (incongruent change). Further, a different measure of relationship quality that assessed trust, passion, commitment, intimacy, love, and satisfaction was employed, and stability and growth measures were also modified to focus on future anticipated changes (vs. current changes as they had done for relationship quality in Study 1).

In contrast to Study 1, this time roughly 44% of participants expected congruent change, whereas 30% anticipated incongruent change (in one of the three forms tested), with the remaining 26% anticipating no change. Consistent with Study 1, when participants anticipated congruent change, they reported higher future relationship quality, stability, and personal growth compared to those who anticipated incongruent change.

Overall, these results suggest that the best relationships are those where people expect they will change in similar ways as their partner. When participants anticipated change only in themselves, or only in their partners, it was not associated with relationship outcomes. Rather, the key factor that seems to influence participants’ appraisals of their relationship was whether both partners were thought to be in sync. It isn’t clear whether the benefit is from both partners being in sync, or that being out of sync is just really detrimental. After all, thinking your partner is going to change, while believing that you won’t, may make you feel like you’re being left behind. Similarly, thinking your own change is going to outpace your partner’s could lead to believing that you’re outgrowing the relationship.

First, it is important to realize that this research focuses on anticipated change, not actual change. In addition, it focuses on change in general, without exploring the exact nature of those changes. Future research will need to explore whether some changes (e.g., personality) are more consequential than other changes (e.g., getting a new job). The research also did not directly address whether changes were positive or negative. It will be important to examine this because events themselves (e.g., a new job) can result in a mixture of positive and negative changes (e.g., more responsibility and prestige which is positive, but less time with the partner which is negative).

Partners may both change a lot, or hardly at all. Regardless, of the rates of change or the nature of it, these studies indicate that as long as partners change in the same way, it bodes well for the relationship.

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1The best evidence is that the quote originated in a play by H. M. Harwood and R. Gore-Browne. You can lean more here: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/01/17/marry/

2Cloutier, A. & Peetz, J. (2017). People, they are a changin’: The links between anticipating change and romantic relationship quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 34, 676-698.


Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up.

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