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How spouses can survive marital change – and be stronger for it

Change is inevitable, so why do we resist when our partners remake themselves over the years? Zosia Bielski speaks to couples about weathering big transformations in the people they love

"Chipmunk catcher." This was the man Ada Calhoun's husband had morphed into in the 10th year of their marriage, and his wife was impressed. Really impressed.

It was the summer of 2014 when the distressed chipmunk got trapped in her parents' house. "I got this," her husband Neal Medlyn announced. Like an "ancient discus thrower," as Calhoun put it, he tossed a plastic cereal bowl onto the panic-stricken chipmunk, slid cardboard underneath and carried it out to the bushes.

They were striking moves Calhoun had never witnessed from her musician husband before. "To feel awed by a man I thought I knew completely: It's a shock when that happens after so many years. And a boon," she writes in Wedding Toasts I'll Never Give, her very funny, new book of essays on modern marriage.

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Chipmunk catching was one change of many in the couple's relationship. The two met in 2000 and their marriage had moved through its honeymoon phase and early child-rearing years. By 2015, they had bought a home in the country and were entering deep domestication, delighting in gardening and cooing over cardinals swooping down on their bird feeder.

Ada Calhoun writes about modern marriage in her new book of essays.

Husband and wife had both drastically changed over the course of the marriage. Lucky for them, they had changed together: "Our alien selves were remarkably compatible," Calhoun writes.

Evolution (or de-evolution, in some cases) is inevitable in long-term committed relationships, as people morph from who they were on first meeting into someone else. Spouses decide they want to quit their jobs and launch into surprising second careers. They itch to move to foreign countries. They take up hard-core fitness regimens and time-consuming hobbies. They try on new religions, dabble in radical political ideologies or embark on self growth.

Partners change too much or not enough, at least according to their significant others. Some people grow apart and change in two different directions – the "no-fault version," said Calhoun, who interviewed many spouses who had been married for 20-plus years. Many told her they felt like they'd been in three marriages, just all to the same person. Some rode out the changes while others got off the ride.

"People were on different schedules," Calhoun said in an interview from Brooklyn, N.Y. "Somebody would change one way and the spouses would be incompatible, sometimes for months or years. Then one spouse would change in a way so they synced back up again – if they stuck around long enough. Those who got divorced, they didn't feel it was going to come back around."

Since change in marriage is a more nebulous challenge than infidelity, abuse or financial duplicity, spouses have a harder time deciding how to react to it. "People like to see long-term relationships as just getting better and stronger, but that's not how most relationships go. Things end and start over, multiple times," Calhoun said. "Change is not something we talk a lot about, because it suggests failure and having to start from scratch again."

Author Ada Calhoun

For Catherine Connors, a drastically redirected career path tested her marriage of 20 years not once, but twice. Five years after wrapping up a PhD in political science at the University of Toronto in 2006, Connors found herself being recruited as editor-in-chief for Babble.com, an online magazine for parents; this on the heels of a popular parenting blog she'd launched called Her Bad Mother. The family would be moving to New York.

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"We had a fairly laid-back life in the GTA. It was going to be a sleepy academic writerly life for me and my husband was going to work in television," said Connors, 46. "Now, he was going to have to become a stay-at-home dad. This was a significant career change that I had never, ever signalled that I was aspiring towards."

Having previously worked in the film and television industry, Connors's husband resented the life change. "I kind of hated it. It was a huge change to not be working," said Kyle Magill, 56. "Sitting back and watching her successes eclipse anything I had ever done, my fragile male ego found that challenging. … It was a real struggle."

In 2015, the couple and their two children, now 9 and 11, moved again to Los Angeles, where Connors launched a consulting and media development company. "My husband wanted us to land somewhere settled and happy, but I had turned our lives into a cycle of striving and competing and working," she said.

Open, "no holds barred" lines of communication saved the marriage, as did a commitment to their family. They saw a life coach together and he's seen therapists solo to "figure out what's going on with me around the relationship," Magill said. Ultimately, the two decided to get acquainted with these new incarnations of each other. "It was a commitment to allow each other to change and to get to know each other again and again, as needed," Connors said.

In Calgary, Leanne Shirtliffe and her husband, Christopher Hughes, have their own techniques for dealing with marital change: humour, and viewing marriage as a "Venn diagram."

"There's the part in the Venn diagram where the two circles cross over, which couples need," said Shirtliffe, a high-school English teacher. "Kids are in there and so are common interests, though those change. But we are pretty adamant about keeping the Venn diagram from morphing into one big circle. I want my husband to have his interests and pursue his passions, and he does that for me, too."

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In other words, the two don't want to be the same amorphous blob. Instead, they celebrate the spheres of each other that are unique and evolving. "The core of who we are is more or less the same," Shirtliffe, 46, said. "The pendulum swings really far, but then it has to find centre point."

Their 17-year-long marriage has survived moving countries three times, big career changes and overturned traditional breadwinner roles. Hughes, 54, quit working as a librarian to take care of their twins while she added writing alongside a full-time job.

"It's disconcerting to stand on shifting ground," Shirtliffe said. "And no one tells you that – how much things are going to change. If you get through the stormy seas of change, often it's a better place. But it doesn't feel like that in the middle of it."

For Tanis Miller and Bruce Winder of Kingman, Alta., the sudden death of their extremely disabled five-year-old son, Shale, in 2005 proved to be the most tragic upheaval of their 20-year marriage. "I grieved wildly differently than my husband did," Miller, 41, recalled. "I wanted everything to stay the same at home. His immediate reaction was that he needed change."

Winder, 42, quit his job and got a position that took him away from home, his grieving wife and two other children. The abrupt decision scared Miller, although, eventually, she understood it was a necessary shift for her husband, who has worked in various parts of the Fort McMurray oil sands as a welder and site manager for more than 10 years.

"He wasn't running away from home or from the grief. He was changing and surviving," Miller said. "It forced the kids and I to do things differently, and we pulled together as a team. This has been a theme in our marriage: When one of us needs a shove, the other one's behind us to give us the old boot in the ass."

Ada Calhoun, author of the new book Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, and her husband, musician Neal Medlyn.

While some couples persevere through change, many others bail. Marni Sky, co-founder of Toronto-based online support network Divorce Angels, points to the rise of "grey divorce" as one result of couples growing in separate directions.

"When people get married young, they were totally different people in their 20s and 30s than they are in their 50s and 60s," Sky said. "How many friends do you have from your elementary school years? Probably you have a few because they're old friends, but not necessarily because you'd make friends with them today. It's the same thing."

People often feel betrayed by and estranged from their spouses, as though they've violated the marriage contract by changing.

"You fall in love with a person. If they suddenly decide to take up mountain climbing or become vegan or put on a ton of weight, it can be easy to feel like: 'This isn't what I signed up for. I signed up for who you were when we met,'" Calhoun explained.

Such expectations are unrealistic and willfully blind. Maybe it's time for a rethink on the non-thinking around change in marriage, about how we seem completely stunned by it and form unfair double standards. Given our cultural tendency toward encouraging personal growth, maybe we should extend the same consideration to our spouses.

"If people look inward, would they be happy to be the exact same way they were in their 20s?" Sky asks. "That's doubtful. We're human and we want to grow."

Calhoun's prescription is "under-reaction" – literally caring less about change – especially since much of it is transitory. "We would do well to remember that what we do for a living, what hobbies we prefer, what we weigh, what kind of mood we're in – it's most likely temporary," she writes.

Perhaps more interesting is her advice to wait it out. Maybe you will like your husband's next phase a lot more than previous versions, if you don't panic and sit tight through this one. Or, as Calhoun posits in the book: "Maybe the person you're on your way to becoming will like this new partner better."

The author believes the day her husband caught the rogue chipmunk was pivotal in a marriage that had grown predictable.

"I would never have thought him capable of that kind of prowess, manliness and skill – and here he was," Calhoun said. "He looked totally new to me in that moment and since then, he's had that aura of somebody who gets stuff done. He was not that man when I first met him. But he became a chipmunk catcher and I really liked it. And I still like it."

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