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They say the first year of marriage is the hardest, but I disagree. I think it’s the 20th.

The first year for my husband and me was hard, for sure. We adjusted to a shared life;worked to combine finances, furniture, and all the little domestic details; and plan our future family. It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun, as we were working together to build something.

As my marriage hit the 20-year mark, my children nearly grown, I realized that parts of my marriage that I thought were functioning smoothly actually were not. Somewhere along the way I had grown unhappy, and worse—I’d been so focused on the next task, on making sure everyone else had what they needed—I had spent a lot of time unaware that I didn’t have what I needed. My unmet needs had become so urgent that they required a drastic change.

Weary and sad, I packed some things and moved out for a year, leaving my bewildered husband and teenage children behind.

The Year of Me, as I think of it now, was all sorts of things: it was exciting and expansive, it was peaceful and calm. Yet, simultaneously, as I worked on myself and my marriage, continuing to parent kids in two households—it was exhausting. It was lonely. It was frequently dark and frightening. I did a lot of thinking. I did a lot of meditating. I did a lot of walking with friends, or alone with my dog, in the woods. I did a lot of writing. I spent a lot of time on my bike—going out for long hours, sometimes all day, by myself. I did a lot of therapy. We all did.

Taking that year for myself was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But it was also one of the best.

I needed to prioritize myself, to reconnect with myself and discover who I had become over the course of the many years I’d been married, and the two children we’d raised.

Because—and this is true for all of us—I most certainly was not the same person I’d been all those years before, when I’d married. Neither of us were.

Well before marriage, back when I was a kid, I remember a bumper sticker that I seemed to see everywhere. It said,


I was too young to understand it then, but this memory must have stuck with me, I guess, for a reason. Waiting for the moment in my adult life when I needed it most.

Change, I now understand, equals death because we fear change. We fear losing ourselves if things change. We fear losing what we have. We fear that if we change we will die—or some part of us will die. Change also equals death in the sense that, if you force me to change, I’d rather die.

Change is scary because it is unknown, and we don’t like not knowing what’s coming next: we find emotional safety in predictability.

Yet, change is the nature of all things: the sun rises, the sun creeps across the sky, the sun sets, the moon takes its place. Sometimes clouds obscure the sun. Eventually clouds part, and the sun returns. Flowers and leaves bloom, fade, and die. It rains. The rain freezes. It snows. The snow melts. People, animals, and plants are born, grow, and die.

Change is in every atom of our universe: thus, trying to fight change or force anything to stay the same is an exercise in insanity. We deny reality and replace it with fantasy by wanting things to stay stable and constant.

In denying reality, we only hurt ourselves because things (and people) continue to change whether we accept it or not.

Our delusions of stability can only be maintained for so long. Anything not grounded in reality eventually breaks down and we are forced to align with what is, not what we want things to be.

Including relationships.

My husband and I, as we focused on raising our family, had been growing apart all those years, into different people. We lived in the same house, but it felt like we were on different planets.

Trying to force old relationships to support changed people does not work.

It’s like trying to feed a car gas when it runs on diesel. It might work for a while, but not very well. And eventually it will seize, because the fuel is incompatible.

To get things running again, you need to evaluate where you are, what you have to work with, and what you need in order to fix things. It requires a level of honesty with yourself and your partner that is difficult for a lot of people, as it certainly was for me. It took this year-long pause and reset to give my husband and me the space to assess how we’d grown and how our needs had changed. We also learned the skills needed to be honest and vulnerable enough with each other to figure out if our relationship could grow to support the current versions of each of us.

Everyone has their own unique lessons to learn through relationships.

Mine biggest lesson is this: while all relationships require compromise, no healthy relationship requires betraying or suppressing your core needs or values. It’s critical not only to understand, but to be fully honest and transparent with yourself and others about what’s negotiable and what’s not.

Yet, always: CHANGE = DEATH. We can never force anyone else to change; change is a personal project and needs to come from within. If we change ourselves to please or to keep someone else, we are betraying ourselves and not being honest with ourselves or the other person. And thus, death: nothing can survive when we are not honest with, and honoring, ourselves.

In letting go and creating space for both of us, I allowed my partner to find his way while I found mine.

I still grieve the fact that I left; I wish it had never happened. Yet he tells me now that he very much needed that time apart, too. He used it to think long and hard about who he was, what he needed, and what he wanted. He grew a lot, too, during that time.

And now, somehow, after all that space and work on ourselves and our marriage, we find ourselves back in alignment, back together. We refer to the first years of our marriage as “1.0;” the years since are “2.0.” And my marriage has become better, stronger, more fulfilling than it’s ever been.

If I had not been fully honest with myself, if I had not understood my values and what I needed, and chosen to act in order to take the best care of myself, we would not be here. I had to fully understand and accept where each of us were at, what we’d grown into.

And, from this, the hardest part: I had to be willing to walk away, rather than try to change myself, or him, to fit.

Knowing that we each could have walked away for good, but we deliberately chose not to by seeing and accepting each other where we are—this has cemented our relationship with bonds stronger than steel. We have emerged from this pause and reset with a level of trust and respect for each other I could not have imagined before.

Not all relationships are able to evolve in this way, and continue for the long term. I am profoundly grateful that ours has.

Heather Shaff

Heather Shaff is a cyclist, writer, and mom based in Boston. She's fascinated by all things growth, motivation, and learning... and will drop everything for chocolate ice cream.

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