Generally speaking, there are two people in a romantic relationship, two individuals that team up for a common goal of being together. Romantic unions are a critical part of human experience and modern psychology sees these unions as system forming, which includes a developmental perspective of such systems. Commonly met relationship developmental stages are 1) partnering 2) children 2) adolescence 4) launching 5) retirement 6) older age (Carter and McGoldrick, 2004). While it is true that a union takes on a life of its own, there are still at least two individuals’ developmental trajectories that demand attention.
Often, partners will synch individual development to the relationship development. For instance, a relationship often starts with passion, an all consuming desire to spend every second together, putting individual developmental needs aside for relationship building. At other times, partners take turns pursuing his/her own dreams and goals, and this desire for personal fulfillment may coincide with relationship development or not.
When both relationship growth and personal growth demands are met and tended to, partnerships remain in tune and can continue to succeed. A prominent Marriage and Family Therapy researcher, John Gottman, even includes sharing hopes and dreams between partners as the pinnacle of marital functioning; Hopes and Dreams is the very top floor of what he calls “The Sound Marital House.” Partners can reach this level of self actualization in the relationship when they have tended to the needs of the unity, such as keeping in touch with each other intimately, maintaining a high ratio of positive to negative interactions (5:1 minimum), and being able to manage conflict that occurs around passing and perpetual issues.
When relationship developmental needs are mismatched with individual needs, sometimes a partner will seek therapy to address personal growth. While the partner may benefit, research has shown that when only one partner in a relationship seeks therapy, the relationship is more likely to fail than if both seek therapy. One explanation that has been given is that the treated partner grows away from the relationship. Does it hold true that growth in one partner is always damaging to relationships?
It turns out that it depends on the state of the relationship; relationships that have a more egalitarian orientation fare better when one partner’s growth needs are met while another’s are on hold. That is, when spouses see each others as equal, avoid being locked into gender stereotypes, and are willing to support each other’s hopes and dreams, chances are a partner’s growth will not harm the relationship In fact, in these types of relationships, partner growth actually enhances the relationship; egalitarian partners report high levels of marital satisfaction even when one partner pursues hopes and dreams while the other supports his/her growth.
Sounds good, right? Well…it is, but in spite of the benefits of partner growth to the relationship, there are problems; while one spouse has a growth experience, the other partner genrally attends to the mundane. S/he gets stuck doing more chores, must often make personal sacrifices (taking one for the team), and generally ends up picking up the slack in more down-to-earth areas of relational functioning. This can be wearying. In addition, the maintaining partner may feel isolated from the growing partner and the couple has to break through an additional barrier to reach the each other emotionally.
To support relationship growth during a partner’s individual growth, partners can refocus attention on intimacy building. In Gottman’s terminology, differential partner growth may be treated as a ‘perpetual issue’. This means that each partner needs to allow for a dialogical space, a two-way exchange between Selves in the relationship and how each self experiences growth both in and out of the relationship. This is not to be confused with problem solving, it is a distinctive kind of sharing that abstains from judgment or fixing, it involves listening and empathizing with each other.
Practical concerns are necessary to address as well. Contextual Family Therapy suggests that partners in a relationship need to feel a sense of trust and justice in relationships, like there is some equality between entitlements and debts. Successful couples who manage dual careers report tending to justice demands by alternating opportunities for career growth. Sometimes these bargains include relationship developmental needs, like when to have a child may be planned in accordance with career switching. What is critical here is that both partner’s needs are tended to as well as the demands of the relationship.
Thus, relationships are even more complex than you may have thought but acknowledging growth trajectories can extend the life of a system and improve its overall functioning. Remember, if a relationship gets stuck for more than 6 weeks in a trouble spot, seek treatment for the system you are in, not just yourself as many issues are influenced by our context.
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