Making Sense of Messy Transitions

The days are getting longer. The snow piles are slowly beginning to disappear. Winter is transitioning to spring.

The P/E office is in a state of disarray. Walls have been torn down, sheets of plastic hang from the ceiling, and the smell of fresh paint lingers. Staff is transitioning to a new collaborative office space. 

Transitions are messy. Between the starkness of winter and the promising warmth of spring, there are a lot of half-snow-half-rain, slushy, gray days (at least in Minnesota.)  In the office, people are displaced from their desks, moving to temporary work spaces with their belongings in boxes around their feet. Extension cords snake across the floor as we wait for electrical work to be completed before people move into their permanent spots.

Transitions that disrupt our physical environment can be a pain. But in examples like these, we usually have a sense of what the end state will be: spring will arrive in full force, days will be warm enough to go without a jacket, and winter will be but a memory. Our office will eventually be finished, we’ll settle into our new space, and enjoy our exciting, collaborative environment.

But what about transitions that are more ambiguous, such as those in our life and relationships? There are fewer concrete, physical cues to signal that a transition is starting or ending. We often don’t know how things will look on the other side of it; we’re jumping without knowing where or how we’ll land, or if we’ll land at all. And that makes these types of transitions not only messy, but also kind of hard and scary.

Think about the transitions you’ve been through with your partner. Dating to engagement to marriage. Having children, changing jobs, moving to a new city, sending the kids off to college, retiring. These are all big changes to navigate as an individual; throw in the nuanced dynamics of your couple relationship, and you’ve got a lot of moving parts to recalibrate, in hopes of coming out in one piece. And perhaps that is the most important part: staying connected to each other throughout the uncertainty, so that the experience strengthens you as a unit.

Whether you and your partner handle change and ambiguity like champs or find it challenging, it is of the utmost importance to keep communication lines open. Here are some tips and topics to talk through before, during, and after a life or relationship transition:

Before: You can’t always prepare for transitions, but in the event you can, take the opportunity to get on the same page beforehand.

  • What are your emotions leading up to the transition? What are you worried, nervous, or anxious about? What are you excited about? What opportunities will come with this change?
  • What expectations do you have for each other, and are they realistic?
  • In what new ways do you think you’ll need your partner’s support and vice versa?
  • What do you each envision as the ideal end state?

During: Check in with each other often. Acknowledge your feelings. You both may be experiencing a wide range of emotions as one chapter of your life closes. Lean on each other, and remember that you’re on the same team.

  • How are things going? How are you feeling? What do you feel good about, and what are sources of stress or conflict?
  • Have you been meeting each other’s expectations? Do you need to make any adjustments? Have there been any surprises?
  • Show each other appreciation. Chances are that neither of you have been perfect up to this point, and that’s okay—and to be expected. But hopefully you’ve both been making an effort. Don’t let that go unnoticed.
  • Has your vision of an “ideal” end state changed?

After: It might be difficult to tell whether a transition is over; sometimes there is no tangible end. But eventually you may find yourselves at a point where things start to feel a little less chaotic and a little more “routine.” This is a good time to take stock of where you’ve landed.

  • Give each other a high five and a hug—you made it! Okay, maybe things are not yet perfect, but will they ever be? If you’ve made it through the most difficult part, you can use those skills to maintain a strong connection with your partner. Change is hard on relationships, but complacency can be just as damaging.
  • Think about your relationship before the transition. In what ways has it changed? How are you stronger as a couple?
  • Have you learned anything new about each other? In what ways did you and your partner step up for one another?

Life and relationship transitions are hard because of the uncertainty and ambiguity of saying goodbye to the familiar and replacing it with the unknown. As a couple, you’ll go through many transitions—big, small, often messy, and sometimes scary. By making communication and connection a priority throughout, you create a foundation to come out stronger on the other side.

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