The idea that people can outgrow each other is a popular rationale for those who are dissatisfied with their relationship. It is also not true. People who think they have outgrown their partner misunderstand how real growth works. The great thing about growth is that it always has a positive impact on relationships, even when it appears that only one partner is doing the growing.
When we say ‘growth’ in the context of human beings, we are normally referring to some kind of internal growth. It goes by many names: emotional maturity, self-actualization, personal development, reaching ones full potential, enlightenment. Whatever words we use to describe it, it is something we cherish and desire for ourselves.
Early on in our marriage my wife Linda experienced this. Linda took a sudden and dramatic jump in how she lived her life and saw the world. She was more patient, more appreciative and more fun to be around. She seemed wiser. Less things bothered her.
Linda could have looked at me, the same old un-evolved, less-developed George, and decided she had outgrown me. Instead her growth allowed her to see our relationship in a new light, a better light. In her eyes I looked like a better husband than I did before. It was as if I had evolved along with her. She saw more assets in me and less problems. She was more patient with my shortcomings. Did she grow annoyed and impatient that I didn’t “rise to the occasion”? Absolutely not. She was happier and more fulfilled in and out of our relationship.
Was it difficult for me to be with someone who was excelling at life so much better than myself? That was a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want a more compassionate, more loving, more patient, more fun spouse? Let’s face it, people have affairs to get a better partner, and I got a new partner without leaving home!
Personal growth makes a person a better person. Better people make for better relationships. Every time a person experiences growth they are bringing those newfound benefits into their relationship.
How did this myth about personal growth being a threat to marriages come about? Well, sometimes people do drift apart as they go about their lives. However, the reason they drift apart has nothing to do with changes in their interests, personalities, pursuits, or even the amount of time they spend together. The truth is that couples drift apart because they get mentally distracted. They allow thoughts about new endeavors to fill their minds, leaving less room for connection.
When two people are together, but each is distracted by their own thinking, they won’t feel connected. Here is a metaphor: Airplane lavatories have a “Vacant/Occupied” dial to indicate availability. In a manner of speaking our minds have a somewhat similar setting: “vacant” when we are free for connection with others, and “occupied” when we are preoccupied with our thoughts on other matters.
Even if two people are very busy, they will have a satisfying and worthwhile relationship if they can set their setting to “vacant” when they spend time together.
Sometimes I hear the argument that a couple can be too different to be able to connect to each other. I do not see this to be the case. Travelers who go to a foreign country will often come back raving about the people they met and connected with. They will say how close they felt to the residents, even if they did not have a shared language to communicate with. If this is possible, then no amount of varied personalities or interests can come into conflict with a couple’s ability to connect with each other.
When people don’t understand closeness and how to achieve it, they blame drifting apart on the reduced time spent together due to them becoming more involved in personal interests. They say things like, “We drifted apart because he became obsessed with golf and I started spending more time with my friends.” They don’t realize that the time they did spend together could have nourished them if their minds had been available for intimacy and connection.
Couples tend to believe that the amount of time spent together directly affects the quality of the interaction. In truth, it doesn’t take much time together to satisfy human beings. Just fifteen minutes of closeness does a lot for relationships. Everything that makes relationships worthwhile–comfort, reassurance, companionship, enjoyment—are all there for a couple when their minds are free and the natural connection between them can be experienced.
When people experience personal growth, they find that their minds are freer and more open to connection. They see beauty in other people. It is easier for them to overlook what were previously viewed as “difficult behaviors”. Instead they see the beauty and the innocence underneath those behaviors. All of these improvements enhance relationships. All of these improvements buffer any kind of perceived challenges, incompatibility of interests, or “difficult” personality traits.
Growth makes us more accepting of incompatibilities, makes us more resourceful in addressing difficult life situations, and allows us to see beyond petty problems, to the goodness and beauty that lies within us and our partners. That is the stuff of better relationships.
Here is the rest of Linda and my story: After Linda “outgrew” me, it didn’t take long for me to say, “I’ll have what she's having.” In a few short months her growth rubbed off on me. I grew in ways, too. I learned things about myself and about how people work. This changed how I saw the world. I became more lighthearted, like Linda. I felt wiser. I felt more mature. Linda and I experienced more closeness and more fun. We did not need to “work” on our relationship. Now it’s now been forty years since things changed for us. It all began when Linda suddenly “outgrew” me, and it saved our marriage.