Can your relationship survive the personal growth experience? Steven Lake examines how personal development can put your relationship in jeopardy.
Growth implies change. Going from where you are to where you want to be. Change can be challenging, not only for the person changing, but to those people around the changed person who now have to engage this new person.
Sometimes, we want the old person back, the person we used to know, the predictable person who responded to us in known ways – not this new person who is different and unpredictable.
I once heard a woman say she preferred it when her husband (an alcoholic) was drunk. He was relaxed and easy to deal with. Now that he had sobered up, he was irritable, depressed and not so easy to control.
In another example, the husband in this case, did not want his wife to change. He was so threatened with her changes and how she might become, that he essentially kidnapped her and brought in a deprogrammer to change her back to who she was.
It didn’t work. She became more entrenched in her desire for personal-growth and understanding. The sad thing was the more he pushed the more she resisted. All she ever wanted was to learn about herself.
He on the other hand, felt that she wanted to leave the relationship because her engaging in a change process meant that she was not happy with the status quo.
She wasn’t happy with the status quo but she had no intention of leaving the relationship until his response drove her away. In a sense, his fears and subsequent actions created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Why is it that the idea, or change itself, can be so threatening for a relationship? I think everyone going into a relationship thinks that over time we will change, both individually and as a couple.
Or is my assumption incorrect? Maybe, people think their partners will stay the same – unchanging, static, frozen at the moment of commitment. Hannah Arendt said, “Men marry women hoping they won’t change, they do. Women marry men hoping they will change, they don’t.”
She said this in the sixties I believe, and there has been a sea change amongst men and their relationship to self-growth. It may not be universal yet, but millions of men in North America have taken self-growth workshops in the past forty years. If we take into account AA and NA which is about change, accountability, and amends, personal change has affected tens of millions of men.
Pop psychology is part of the cultural landscape and 30% of Oprah’s viewers were men. That would never have happened when I was younger. Still, 80% of self-help books are bought by women, so there is room for improvement.
Another area where change is evident is in the therapy room. When I first started out 20 years ago most of my clients were women. Today, I see many men in my practice. It is still difficult for the older ones to show up, but the younger men seem less self-conscious about being in therapy (mind you, I live in a large city and it is probably different in rural areas).
Whether it is a man or a women engaging in personal growth, it can be threatening to the partner (whatever sex they are). However, there are actions we can take to increase the possibility of positive outcomes when a change process is undertaken.
- We can communicate with our partners what we are up to, what we want to achieve and ask how they feel about this. Engaging in dialogue will make sure that both people know what is going on with their partner and what is needed to provide support and reassurance if need be.
- We can invite our partner to share the experience. I love doing workshops with my partner. Not only is there the individual growth attained, but there is the sharing of each other’s experience and sometimes there is growth in the relationship as well. When this happens the relationship benefits in untold ways and both partners have a mutual language in which to explore further growth. Exciting stuff.
- If only one person is engaged in a workshop, or a program of study over time, keep your partner informed about what you are learning and experiencing. You now have material to talk about that did not exist prior to your learning experience. How great is that? This is commonly known as creating intimacy through sharing.
- Make sure your relationship is your prime focus and is not replaced by the leader or teachings of the course. Anything you learn can be funneled into your relationship – it should not replace it. I lost a former lover and dear friend to a cult and there is nothing quite like the feeling of helplessness that permeated my soul when it happened.
- Support and encourage your partner when they want to grow. Proactive engagement in their process will make them feel good about themselves and positive about you.
Finally, we all grow in different ways and at different times during the relationship and we may attain this growth through life challenges like: losing a job, moving, losing a loved one to accident or disease, getting a promotion, getting sick, inheriting money, and having children. These are all opportunities for self-growth and we handle them in our unique ways.
For some of us, having these challenges is not enough. We want to understand why we do what we do. Why did I handle what life threw at me in the way I did? Can I handle myself in a better and more self-enhancing way? To do this, we engage in some form of learning process and self-discovery.
We might take A Course in Miracles, go back to school, take art classes, go on a trek along some famous religious pathway, engage in therapy, or take a workshop geared specifically for personal growth.
So yes, self-growth, without a doubt can be threatening to a relationship. It can however, be the opportunity of a lifetime. It can revitalize the relationship in ways you could never have imagined or predicted. It can be the change that takes your relationship to a new level.
As the old saying goes, the only constant is change. If you believe this, the question then becomes, are you going to embrace change, or fight it?