I’ve  talked to a number of people recently who are stuck in unsatisfying, or painful relationships. I tend to see them when they’ve muscled through until they just can’t stand it one more minute. After working with hundreds of divorcing people, I notice that the relationship endings all have one thing in common: the relationship hit a point where it could no longer bend, change was required, and change wasn’t made.

A relationship is a living growing breathing entity. It has its own dreams, goals and hopes, and it will work through, in the case of a romantic relationship, the two people involved, to promote fulfillment of those dreams and goals. What does that look like? Maybe one partner mysteriously finds the perfect self-help book, or sees a meaningful movie, or has an important conversation with a friend about something they just learned. (When the student is ready the teacher will appear.) Many times it is the woman, perhaps because she has more of those types of conversations, but more men are engaging all the time. With new insight, the thought of the relationship being better becomes exhilarating. Hope returns. “Oh my gosh, if we can just change this, we can be happy again.”

But in bringing that new excitement back to a partner who is afraid of change, the excitement is met with resistance. And so the struggle begins. “Why all the change all of a sudden? I liked things the way they were.” “You’re different.” “If you would just leave me alone and let things be like they used to be we could still be happy, you know.” “Nothing makes you happy anymore.” “What do you want from me?”

Many divorcing people ask, “What is the key to relationship success?” After observing it, and living it, I have, in fact, narrowed it down to one key element: the willingness to grow and change. Some of us haven’t caught up to the fact that people change. It is inherent to being human. Life changes us. We change ourselves. We get new ideas, have new dreams, try new ways of doing things, even try new ways of being. Our relationships must also adapt in those ways. There are a lot of online services that promise the perfect match. But unless that match is actively seek personal growth and is open to change, it won’t work for the long haul.

Even the best relationships hit the wall of unresolvable conflict many times throughout their lifespan. Hitting one of these is painful. It can seem like the end of the world, or at least the end of the relationship. “I hate to think that this problem is bigger than us.” Sarah said, in tears. I replied, “It is bigger than who you are now.” This isn’t the time to give up; it’s the time to seek more resources. With new resources you grow just a little bit more, and this new version of yourself can face that unresolvable problem and see a solution. You weren’t able to see it before because you weren’t yet that person.

Terrence Real, in the introduction to his book The New Rules of Marriage, says:

“We’re in a time of great change. The roles of men and women have dramatically shifted and so have our expectations about relationships. We have never wanted more from one another–more passion, more support, more connection. But our desires have not been matched by a corresponding new set of skills, and for most of us, whatever we learned growing up about relationships is simply not sophisticated enough to deliver all that we hope for.” 

And so it is that, if we want truly loving relationships, we must learn new skills. If we don’t want our next relationship to end up in the ditch, we must learn new skills. Gone are the days when we could have an, at least tolerable, relationship with little effort. In years past, relationship success was a stab in the dark. Our means were trial and error. But now, research has provided proven principles for making relationships work. You don’t need to wait for romance again before practicing. You can start today with friends, family and co-workers. If you need a little help… well, that’s what I’m here for.