What are the 4 Types of Life Transitions?

While most of us crave stability and even predictability, life rarely offers that. Instead, we get a lifetime of changes that force us out of our complacency, make us feel vulnerable, and offer us exponential learning and growth if we learn to embrace them. 

Life is about change. And while we all go through many changes throughout our lifetimes, major life transitions are the ones that impact us the most. They help us to be more self-aware and open to new possibilities, and they often positively affect the trajectory of our future. 

What are 4 types of life transitions?

Transitions can be joyous or painful, personal or work-related. Some transitions are expected, and some are unexpected. Sometimes you anticipate one thing and get another. Sometimes, the transition is so gradual that you don’t even realize it’s happening until much later. 

Researchers Nancy K. Schlossberg and S.B. Merriam have studied life’s major transitions and developed theories about their opportunities for growth and adult learning. In their work, Schlossberg and Merriam have distilled these major transitions into four categories: anticipated, unanticipated, non-events, and sleepers. 

Life happens, and if you learn how to recognize and navigate its transitions, you can appreciate their opportunities. 

Anticipated changes: What they are

Anticipated transitions are the ones you expect as part of your life’s goals. They are often based on social norms about what your life goals should be and how and when you should accomplish them. 

For instance, a person might expect to go to college, get a good job, get married, have children, and retire. These expectations allow them to set a course for their future, set goals, and help them measure how far they’ve come. 

How these changes challenge you 

While anticipated transitions can be helpful in setting goals, things don’t always go according to plan. If you meet your goals and deadlines, you feel validated and supported. But not meeting them could limit you and make you feel unhappy about your life.

For instance, let’s say all your friends are married with children and you’re still single. Friends who graduated at the same time as you got high-paying jobs, but you’re still sending out resumes and struggling to pay your bills.

Focusing too much on these anticipated transitions or their timing can make you feel like you failed, even if those goals don’t align with who you are. 

How these changes help you grow

If you’ve missed certain goals for yourself, consider the possibilities. Do you really need or want to follow the same prescribed path as everyone else? Have your expectations kept you from examining other options or pursuing things closer to your heart? Who would you be without the expectations you’ve assumed for yourself? 

Closely examining what you’ve anticipated for your life allows you to evaluate who you really are and create other goals, a different timeline, and a future that works best for you instead of weighing yourself against what you feel you “should'' be doing.

Unanticipated changes: What they are

Unanticipated transitions are unexpected, and you can’t prepare for them. These can include serious accidents, the death of a loved one, a job loss, or your spouse asking for a divorce

Unexpected transitions can leave you feeling vulnerable and downright afraid. Because you aren’t prepared for them, they may blindside you when they happen. But precisely because of that unpredictability and discomfort, they can offer great opportunities for personal growth. 

How these changes challenge you 

Unanticipated transitions give you no choice but to adapt. A death or divorce means a significant relationship will never be available to you again. A job loss can leave you unable to care for yourself financially. An accident can set you back physically and emotionally. Because you have no ability to anticipate these things, you’re not prepared for them. Now what?

How they help you grow

Unanticipated transitions force you to cope and adapt. You’re left to find a way through, no matter how uncomfortable it is. 

While unanticipated transitions usually feel negative in the short term, it's that aspect of discomfort that motivates growth and change. You learn to grieve and find comfort in the memories of your loved one. You find a new job that’s more in harmony with who you are. You realize how depressed and unhappy you’ve been in your marriage, and your spouse asking for a divorce gives you permission to find the happiness you’ve been missing. 

Suggested: Top Reasons People Get Divorced (and End Up Happier)

Non-event changes: What they are

Non-event life transitions are all about expecting one thing and getting another. 

You’ve had certain expectations for yourself, either your own or more societal ones. But these expectations and goals never materialized in the way you’d hoped. Despite putting time and effort into them, they are the “might haves” or “could haves” that simply didn’t happen. 

How a non-event may challenge you 

Perhaps you planned to have children, but after trying for months, you’re told you’re not biologically unable to conceive. You were promised a large promotion, but instead, it was given to someone else. You believed that a divorce was the answer to your marital dissatisfaction but then realized the hurt it was causing your children. 

Having expectations and getting something completely different can leave goals unmet and dreams dashed. But it can also offer the opportunity to pivot from those expectations in a way that is ultimately beneficial. 

How it helps you grow

When life doesn’t work out in the way you want, it can open a portal for self-compassion, understanding, and a sense of curiosity. 

Despite your best efforts, your goals have not materialized, yet you’ve been offered another chance. In retrospect, would you have made the same decisions for yourself? And while your alternatives may not immediately seem as attractive or affirming as the ones you created in your mind’s eye, with enough openness and curiosity, they can be even better than what you anticipated. 

For example, you might find the perfect adoption scenario. You might locate a better position that aligns with your talents. You might work cooperatively with your spouse to co-parent in a way that makes the kids feel loved and less vulnerable. Flexibility and time allow you to consider other alternatives and let your future play out in a beneficial way. 

Read: What Kind of Co-Parent Are You?

Sleeper changes: What they are

Sleeper transitions creep up on you when you’re not aware. They often fly under the radar until, one day, you have a moment of clarity. 

While sleeper transitions can be positive, such as appreciating that all your hard work as a parent has paid off when you see your adult child become a good and kind parent, they can also be negative. For example, after earning advanced degrees and moving up the corporate ladder, you might realize you’d be much happier in a less stressful career. 

How gradual changes challenge you 

With gradual changes, time gone by can feel like a lost opportunity. Perhaps you’ve been married to the same person for 30 years and now realize that it’s not the marriage you’d hoped for. You feel like roommates, but you’re afraid to begin again. Or maybe you’ve dedicated an incredible amount of time and money to your post-secondary degree, and now you realize that what you really want has nothing to do with your formal education. Is it too late?

Suggested: How to Cope with Depression after Divorce

How becoming aware of gradual changes can help you grow

With gradual change, it may have taken this time and perspective to clearly consider the journey. You've been caught up in the momentum of reaching your goal and may not have had the time or emotional maturity to appreciate what you really wanted for your life. It’s only in retrospect that you can look back with clarity. 

From this vantage point, you can consider the current reality and the alternatives available to you. A new career can be life-affirming and exhilarating. A new relationship based on mature values can be deeper and more companionable. As long as you have a future ahead of you, change can move you into more meaningful and exciting territory, if you let it. 

Transitions, especially difficult ones, can promote personal growth and self-compassion, opening you to new options. Even transitions that are particularly unwelcome, like a divorce, can offer many beneficial outcomes. 

At Hello Divorce, we’re here to support you through the transition of divorce and beyond. Our divorce coaches and mediators can walk you through the challenges, and our divorce plans help you save money along the way. With our team of professionals on your side, you can navigate this difficult transition while appreciating what life holds for your future. Schedule a free 15-minute meeting with one of our phone representatives to learn more.  

Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.