08/27/2014 09:42 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2014

You Are NOT The Man I Married: Accepting Change In The One You Love

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Sara was a gorgeous young woman. She was 33 years old, happily married, the mother of an adorable 4-year-old daughter, and... she was miserable. Why? Because she could no longer fit into her size 2 jeans.

She sat in my therapy office crying her eyes out because, without her consent, her body had changed. She sniffled, "I'm not the woman that my husband married."

"Yes, you are right," I agreed. "But then again, he's not the husband you married either."

I'm reminded of the jazz standard, "The Way You Look Tonight" (music by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, from 1936), made popular by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and more recently Rod Stewart. The lyrics give the false impression that people can be frozen in time: "Lovely, never, ever change. Keep that breathless charm. Won't you please arrange it? Cause I love you, just the way you look tonight."

I can understand and even appreciate the song's sentiment, but guess what? It's not going to happen. People never stay the same. Change will happen whether we desire it or dread it. Change itself is one of the few constants in this life of ours.

I have only been married to my dear husband for five years, yet he has changed in so many ways: he grew a beard, he shaved off the beard; he gained 30 pounds, lost 50 pounds and gained 20 pounds; he had colon cancer; he had major surgery and six months of chemotherapy; he started exercising with fervor and got physically fit; he gave up gluten and dairy; and he started a new career. Jeez -- and that's just in five years!

Your spouse is not the same person now as when you met, and neither are you. Yes, there can be sadness in change, the loss of what was. On the other hand, some changes will be welcome. When you resist the inevitability of change, you will surely suffer. So try to embrace life's changes and look for the opportunities in the new.

  • Look into the eyes of your beloved every day. Ask, "Who are you?" Be prepared for surprises and the adventure of discovery.
  • Ask your partner how life is changing them. Delve into their psyche with curiosity: "How is life different for you now that you're a father, now that you were fired from your job, now that your mother has died, now that you are retired?" Find out how life experiences are changing the inner sanctuary of the one you love.
  • Know that time is keeping score on both of your bodies. Do everything you can to be healthy and then let go. You are both aging. Try handling it with graciousness and curiosity rather than resistance and desperation.
  • Ask your partner what they know now that they didn't know before.
  • Start a new hobby with your partner, something that neither of you have done before (ballroom dancing, bridge, motorcycling, bird watching, kayaking). Novelty keeps the brain in top shape and learning something new together ensures that you'll keep growing together (rather than apart).
  • Ask your partner about his dreams for the future. Listen with curiosity and interest. Get to know who your spouse is becoming.

In 75 Habits for a Happy Marriage, I emphasize the importance of healthy relationship habits in helping couples grow and change together. The good news about relentless change is that, as you age, you get to fall in love with your dear spouse over and over again.