There is a lot of content in social media competing for our attention. I came across a golden nugget the other day. Facebook had suggested a video for me to watch - a show called Red Table Talk. I was unfamiliar with the show, but familiar with its stars/creators - Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith.
I saw its newest edition and an older episode queued up, highlighting the topic of infidelity. As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I am always looking at the latest talk on infidelity. As a major bonus, their guest expert was none other than Esther Perel, an esteemed psychotherapist who lectures often on relationships.
“You make an important distinction.” Esther shared to Jada. “It’s not the same (to say) staying in a relationship versus staying in a role. When you pick a partner, you pick a story. Sometimes you find yourself recruited for a play you didn’t audition for. It’s the role you want to change. People confuse wanting to change the role with wanting to change the whole relationship and wanting to leave.”
In my work with couples, some struggle with the idea of change within the relationship. Yet, change is inevitable.
Think of your favorite novel. The characters are constant, but the story changes. There is character growth. Growth that happens through trial, growth that happens through time, growth that happens through learning. There are plot twists - a new adventure, a hardship, an idea to pursue, etc. In a beloved novel, there is usually a climax with some sort of satisfying ending.
Long-term committed partnerships aka marriages can mimic novels. The characters stay the same, but there is character growth. The role you start out with - how you show up for your partner and how you want your partner to show up for you - is likely going to change over time.
Plot twists in marriage look like job change, health crises, change in spiritual or religious beliefs, relocation, raising children, infertility, unemployment or underemployment, new educational paths, death… Really the list is endless, isn’t it?
When a marriage has gone through a few of these life bumps, you will notice *individual* growth and *relationship* growth. We tend to think of developmental growth only happening to children between the ages of 0-18. But, while our bodies stop growing, our minds do not. Ask any couple who has been married longer than 20 years and they will tell you that they are not the same people they were when they married. The healthiest of these couples will also tell you that their love has endured this individual growth into something even stronger.
So, how does a marriage survive growth? How does it survive plot twists? Imagine a beautiful couple engaging in a lovely dance. You will notice how they hold each other - not too rigid, not too loose. Notice, as well, how they look at each other. Sometimes, directly at each other, sometimes off to the side and sometimes opposite each other. Finally, notice their shared dancing space. They dance closely - in an embrace or side by side. Sometimes, they dance away from each other and dance on the other side of the room. The loveliest of dances will end in the climax of a big finish - the couple, together, having gone through closeness, the difficulties, spending time together and away from each other - rushing back to dance with their partner one last time.
Is this the vision you have for your marriage? Is there space for togetherness *and* autonomy? Is there space to learn the dance moves together but also space to dance on your own? Is there room for the music to change and new choreography to be learned all while being committed to the same life (dance) partner?
The dance of marriage - the ones who get to experience the finale flourish - will be able to balance the growth of each partner and the growth of their dance.
Jenny Elledge, LMFT
Jenny Elledge is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in couples counseling, trauma work, PTSD, anxiety, ADHD, faith transitions, mixed-faith relationships, life transitions and parenting issues. She offers both therapy and coaching services in-office and online settings for couples, families, and individuals.