Every relationship creates a “system,” marriage perhaps being one of the most well defined.  And one rule about systems is that, in general, they seek homeostasis, and they don’t like change. We’re comfortable when we know what to expect.

Therefore, when one person within a marriage decides to change and do something fundamentally different, it disrupts the system and creates an unbalance for all involved.

This change is then often met with a “change back” message from the other partner — it could be anything from a subtle suggestion or resistance, all the way to an over-the-top massive response filled with rage.

But these changes might also include things like being more honest and transparent; starting a physical fitness program; spending more time with your girlfriends; dealing with an addiction; initiating sex in a powerful, direct way; or telling your partner what you’re feeling.

When one person makes a personal change it will unsettle the other person, even if the change is positive.

The Relationship Teeter-Totter

Picture a teeter-totter as your marriage. When your spouse initiates change, one side of the teeter-totter goes up and upsets the systemic balance.

If you resist this change from your spouse, he or she has the choice of holding on and trying to continue the new behavior, or to give in and let your system regain homeostasis (bringing the teeter-tooter back into balance).

Your spouse might decide to hold on and continue the new behavior.  If you value your relationship, then you face a choice:

1.  Find some way to pull your spouse back down into systemic homeostasis to relieve your anxiety (in other words, you get things back to the way they were).

2.  Or you can challenge yourself, and start growing in your own way.

If you challenge yourself and start to grow (often while soothing your own anxiety rather than trying to manage it), your side of the teeter-totter will go up.  This will once again upset the relationship system in its own unique way. Your spouse can then either try to bring you back down, or challenge him or herself in a new way and rise up to meet you.

Photo by kosabe

When two people keep raising the bar for each other with challenges, the upward growth of both individuals (and the relationship) is continuous AND limitless. And this is what keeps a marriage fully alive.

An example:

Steve and Michelle are somewhat lazy and out of shape. Steve decides to start a new physical fitness program that includes regular workouts and a healthy diet. As Steve starts working out and eating better, Michelle feels anxious about Steve’s newly found passion and his physical changes. He is slimming down and looking fit, has more energy, is more active, and begins dressing better.

Michelle notices other women noticing her husband. Even though Michelle likes how her husband is changing, she misses the old days when they could share Ben & Jerry’s and sit on the couch every night watching TV.

She even has some pangs of insecurity that he will no longer find her attractive and will leave her for another woman.

In this state of anxiety, Michelle has two options:

1.  She can give Steve “change back messages.” She can insist that he is working out too much and neglecting her and the family. She’ll warn him not to get too thin. She’ll bring home his favorite flavor of ice cream. She’ll invite him to stay home and watch their favorite show instead of going to the gym. She may withdraw. She may rage about some seemingly unrelated issue.

2.  Or she can challenge herself and start going for a walk every morning. She can start doing some of her own research on nutrition and share her discoveries. As she progresses and starts feeling more energized and better about how she looks, she might challenge herself to train for a half-marathon.

Her new-found energy and commitment might now cause Steve to feel a little unsettled.

Maybe he has reached a plateau in his own progress, or even started to slip into some old habits.  So when he sees his spouse moving to the next level, he also has a choice to make:

Try to bring her back down, or rise to the challenge.

The process continues.

Second Order vs. First Order Change

Photo by lululemon athletica

These shifts in a system are called “second order change.” They are fundamentally different than the type of change that most people try to create in their relationships — “first order change.”

An example of first order change might be one partner nagging, bribing, or threatening his partner to try and get her to lose weight. If Steve takes this approach with Michelle and makes her anxious enough, or induces enough neurotic guilt, she might actually starve herself and drop a few pounds. But unfortunately, as soon as her anxiety dissipates, she will typically revert back to where she was before.

First order change has a strong attachment to outcome, and rarely produces long-term growth or change, because it does nothing to fundamentally alter the system.

It is also unloving because it says, “I don’t love you just the way you are. You must change in order for me to love you.”

If you have ever been in a relationship with someone who tried to change you, you know just how badly this feels.

Attempts at first order change ignore the fact that things exist the way they do because both people have created them to exist the way they do.

Second order change, on the other hand, has no attachment to outcome and is, therefore, unpredictable. It happens when something fundamental shifts within the system. Plus, it has the most potential for creating significant long-term change within the relationship.

Second order change creates a great unknown — it sets the system into uncharted waters. When things shift in a relationship, it becomes impossible to predict where things will go — but the only way to discover new territories is to set sail and see what new worlds you can find.

If you’re interested in learning more about this idea and how to use it to help your marriage, check out my upcoming online class, Blow Up My Marriage.

How do you see the teeter-totter play out in your family?