The Impact of Gradual Change



I recently read a (fictional) book about a woman, Alice, who takes a fall at the gym and bumps her head. After a series of comical and confusion-filled interactions, she eventually figures out that she has completely forgotten the last ten years of her life. In her head, she’s 30 years old, happily married to the love of her life, and expecting her first child. In reality, she’s getting ready to celebrate the big 4-0, has three children, and is going through a hostile divorce. I’m sure you can imagine the hilarity—and awkwardness—that ensues.

The main storyline of the book revolves around Alice’s inability to reconcile the present-day state of her marriage with the one from ten years ago, which she believes is the present. What could have possibly happened in the past ten years to make them fall out of love with each other? She subsequently becomes determined to stop the divorce from happening, but in the meantime, is shocked and hurt by the cold and derisive way her husband speaks to her. She doesn’t remember any of the contributing factors that led them to divorce proceedings, but her husband definitely does. He insists that when she regains her memory, she’ll change her mind, and she insists she won’t.

Of course, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like if I somehow got amnesia and forgot the past ten years of my own life. I shared the scenario with my husband, and we had some interesting conversations recounting all of the things that have happened in the last decade and the changes that we’ve gone through—both as individuals and in our relationship. Needless to say, a lot can happen in ten years.

Some changes are gradual; you barely notice them as they’re happening because you’re just living through them, day in and day out: you and your partner growing apart or fostering a deeper connection, finding your true passion, becoming more of an emotional softie or more closed off, becoming better communicators, gaining or losing self-confidence.

Some changes are sudden and drastic, altering your relationship or the course of your life in a matter of hours or days: getting engaged or married, having a baby, losing a loved one, suffering an injury or diagnosis.

As my husband and I talked about this make-believe situation, it became evident to me that the gradual changes, the ones that happen over the course of months or years, are the hardest to define and describe. It’s kind of like comparing a photo of yourself when you were 5 years old to one when you’re 35. How do you describe the changes? You could simply say, “I grew up,” but that hardly captures the nuanced journey you’ve taken over three decades: the scar from taking a hockey puck to the chin when you were 10, the fissure of your first broken heart, the way it mended upon meeting your future spouse, the fine lines crinkling the corners of your eyes from years of shared inside jokes, the faint traces of sadness and resentment from relationship hurts that never fully healed. All of these milestones don’t simply happen to you, they change you as a person, even if the changes are barely noticeable at first.

When Alice learns she’s getting divorced, she wants to know, “what happened???” And the answer is: so many things. So many things, yet not a single simple answer.

So many things happen that not only change us, but also affect the way we feel about ourselves, our partner, and our relationship. Things that can’t be stripped away because they’ve become part of us, like a sapling that sprouts up next to a chain link fence. Gradually, the trunk grows around the metal lattice merging into one. You can still see fragments of each separate component, but separating them completely would result in destruction of the tree.

There may be times we wish we could go back to when love was new, when life seemed simple, when we planned romantic dates and couldn’t know enough about each other. But as Alice learns, fixing her relationship isn’t as simple as turning back time. We can’t just choose to forget or disregard our history with our partner, or change them (or ourselves) back into who they/we were then.

The reality is, we change. Our relationships change. And that is an inevitable part of life. But perhaps the key is to embrace those changes, really wrap our arms, our minds, and our hearts around them, and realize that all of these changes have helped us grow and develop a richer, deeper relationship. The tree that grows around the chain link fence can still thrive. If anything, the scarred trunk, your history together and as individuals, serves as a reminder of just how far you’ve come.


The book referenced in this post is What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty.

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