You've changed

A promotion, a debt and even a diet can shake the most stable relationships. Kimberly Gillan explores how to keep things balanced when one of you gains the upper hand

You've changed

Deep breaths, I chanted in my head as I walked into my boss's office. "Can I have a chat?" I mumbled, fighting back tears. "My partner and I are moving back to Melbourne."

Three years earlier, I was an eager young journalist who left my hometown for magazine heaven: Sydney. My boyfriend and I set about building great careers and making new friends. But when he said he wanted to move back, I freaked out - it seemed too soon to leave my friends, my career and the Bondi beachside life I love.

When I couldn't quash the pessimistic thoughts, I dialed my 24/7 counselor, Mum. "The ball's in his court now," she cleverly articulated. "You've been calling the shots, now it's his turn." Mum's honesty hit a nerve.

I'd never experienced a power shift like this before. We'd always agreed on most things, including our move interstate when he'd been flexible enough to help me achieve my dream. Since I'd called the Sydney move, I knew it was only fair I supported his wishes, too. Psychologist Melissa Podmore says most women experiencing a power shift feel lost. "You have your defined roles within the relationship and the earth moves underneath you," she says. "What usually comes up is a sense of powerlessness."

And it's not just career changes that can cause rifts. Job loss can lead to money pressure, a health kick can change the way you spend your time or a financial windfall can mean you don't know where you stand. "Suddenly you're not equal … so you have to ask 'what does that mean?'" says psychologist and relationships expert Anne Hollonds. "Change of this nature requires a renegotiation of the terms of your 'contract' with each other."

Navigating new territory
When your relationship is cruising, it's hard to imagine change could have such a brutal impact. "It's very frightening… You'll find out quickly whether your relationship is strong enough to handle it," Podmore says.

Jacqui, 28, and her husband AJ went through a big test last year when he quit his job. He'd been miserable at work for 18 months so, with Jacqui's support, decided to take time out. He had some savings, but faced the prospect of relying on Jacqui to pay their mortgage if he didn't find something new. "It was tough," Jacqui recalls. "He was really down and worried about how he was going to provide for us." Luckily he was only unemployed for two months, but Jacqui had to keep him positive. "I felt so helpless but I wanted to be strong and support him," she says.

It's not uncommon for men to struggle if they're not the main breadwinner. "Although we pride ourselves on equality, there are distinct masculine and feminine energies at play for a relationship to be functioning in a healthy manner," Podmore says. "When these things happen, they invert the masculine and feminine qualities so they're out of whack." She suggests women in situations like Jacqui's limit the amount they talk about the problem. "It can seem like it consumes all of your conversations together," she says. "Especially for a man who is feeling like he's struggling - it's completely overwhelming ... ineffective communication. They'll either get angry and defensive, or they'll zone out and avoid us." But if he's still wallowing after months, you'll need to make suggestions to get him out of his rut or take practical steps to help him find a job.

Power shifts that shock
Women who stop earning money don't necessarily find it smooth sailing, either. Krystal, 27, was surprised how difficult she found being a stay-at-home mum. "I was jealous of my partner still having his normal life [plus] his beautiful new baby," she recalls. "I didn't have the extra money I'd once brought in to go and buy the pants I liked." Hollonds says a lot of new mums feel this way, but every couple handles things differently. "Often it's because they haven't really thought about what it's going to be like," she says. "You've got to go through all the worst-case scenarios like, 'What if I want to buy something for myself and I don't feel entitled?' Everybody needs to work it out according to what's right for them."

Even a partner's changing appearance can cause tension. Just look at Leigh Westren and Lara Whalan, the "hot couple" on last year's Biggest Loser Families. Instead of celebrating losing almost 100kg between them, Lara has reportedly broken up with him after believing he cheated on her. After losing almost 60kgs on the show, his confidence must have been sky high. Hollonds says break-ups are a common result of such a major lifestyle change. "These sorts of things can create … a big rift," she explains.

Accept the change
Lara, 24, admits it was naïve to think her boyfriend graduating from uni and starting a high-paying job wouldn't change things. "He started mixing with different people and had new interests," she recalls. "I was still a student and felt like I wasn't part of his life. It took a long time for us to get used to the new lifestyle and stop arguing." Hollonds says most people assume big financial gains will be purely positive, but like any change, you need to discuss the possible implications. "The biggest mistake we make is we assume the other person is going to think like we do - it's best to put out there what the problems might be," she says.

The good news is, couples who survive a power shift usually become closer than ever. "If we hold each other's hand through it, we discover deeper fabrics within each other and deeper layers of who the other person is," Podmore explains.

That was certainly the case for me. I eventually confessed my concerns to my boyfriend, who was very understanding. He reminded me we were a team and if things turned pear-shaped in Melbourne, we'd look at moving back to Sydney. In the end, it all worked out great. We made plans to travel overseas before we relocated and I decided to pursue my dream of being a freelance writer. As bad as I felt when we were in the middle of our power shift, I'm glad it happened because it brought us closer.