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What Happens When People Treat Their Partner Like a Project

Lopsided caregiving relationships tend toward suffering and confusion.

Key points

  • In "personal development relationships," one partner is an unofficial therapist to the other, making healthy intimacy less and less possible.
  • In relationships where pathological narcissism meets excessive dependency, personal development relationships may become abusive.
  • Addressing unmet developmental needs in an appropriate setting frees one up to build mutually beneficial, balanced relationships.
Source: SeventyFour/Shutterstock

People seek close relationships for many reasons: the need to be loved, the desire for a family, the longing for a life partner with whom to grow old, for mutual edification, for fun and enjoyment, for pragmatic purposes, for financial advantages, and so on. We may be completely unaware of the reasons, or they may hover on the edge of consciousness.

A straightjacket built for two

Co-authors and I have written extensively about “irrelationship,” a pattern of relationship in which the unrecognized fear of intimacy drives couples to behave as if they were both trying their hardest to make the relationship work—that very effort itself is a distraction to hide the fact they are actually avoiding closeness.1

Dysfunctional relationships are often rooted in unhealthy dependency needs and underdeveloped self-awareness. We often pick partners who can’t meet those needs. Even with those who might, unresolved personal problems can wreak havoc. If we are not poised to do the work required, even with a good match, we’re swimming against hidden currents.

Identifying "personal development relationships"

Along parallel lines, there is a pattern I’ve observed over the course of many years of clinical work and study of psychology and relationship I think of as a “personal development relationship.” The main driver of the relationship is to fill unmet developmental needs, usually for one more than the other.

Rarely, we make romantic choices fully aware of what we want them for psychologically: for instance, dating someone seemingly more mature and emotionally put together in the hopes that it will somehow rub off or lift us up.

The most glaring personal development relationships I’ve seen are accidental but feel like destiny, based on powerful chemistry fueled by developmental irresolution and not true compatibility.

Desiring and being desired blinds us to our own and other's motives. Simple coincidences, like sharing a favorite book or song or a similar life experience, create a mirage of destiny. At least for a little while...

The road to good intentions is paved with hell

In personal development relationships, there is from the start an element of seeming altruism to help the other person be the best version of themselves. At first, this may be welcome, infinitely appealing even. Particularly if our primary caregivers, conventionally our parents, did not take on the task of helping us develop into our best selves, we will approach adult relationships ill-prepared.

This void, the meaning of which evades awareness, creates a dark attractor. This is the void formed when primary caregivers are unable to regard the child as the center of the world as developmentally required, stunting the growth of healthy narcissism and a stable, well-integrated sense of self.

Eventually, the personal development dynamic undermines intimacy, as the lopsided loop of helping and being helped supersedes opportunities for true connection. When one comes to see themselves as more evolved and the other as a fix-up project, it spells the death of romance.

Unless there is an even give-and-take, with mutual growth, the relationship turns from an intimate relationship into an unofficial coaching relationship. What at first was an oasis becomes a prison.

When insistence becomes coercion

Personal development relationships can be subtle, leading to a tepid ending, nevertheless often with significant heartbreak. They can also be destructive, ending with abusive control-oriented dynamics and terrible cataclysm. This is especially the case when there is underlying developmental trauma organized around pairings of pathological dependency and toxic narcissism.

“I’m just trying to help you!” becomes a thinly veiled cycle of coercion, with one person’s non-acceptance of their own flaws resonating with the other’s conscious self-doubt. It alleviates the need to deal with their own personal problems, as each becomes the other's allegedly beloved nemesis. A spotlight is turned on every flaw, and normal foibles are magnified, overshadowing the many positives.

One partner feels justified to hold the other accountable even when they don’t want help anymore, even when they are obviously hurting them. The perpetrator claims to be the victim, and the victim flips back and forth between accepting and rejecting their gaslit reality.

Healthy endings for personal development relationships

In the end, the biggest growth step is, ironically, to end the relationship. That final step of self-affirmation sometimes may be deep learning, but sometimes just resets the cycle.

With the prototypical parent-child relationship, the ending is analogous to growing up and leaving home. If the parent-child relationship has been good enough, leaving home is an experience of joy, loss, acceptance, and healthy transition.

Of course, the perfect fairy-tale ending is rare. Sometimes failure to launch and empty nest syndromes become unresolved arcs into unmet adult developmental needs and irrelationship. In stark cases, adult children may find that the only way to escape from a destructive parent is through a romantic relationship, but the reprieve is almost always temporary because the partner choice remains shaped by underlying psychological distortion.

The therapeutic ideal

Formal therapeutic relationships are designed to focus on the personal development of one person, without dual, competing roles. While they don’t always go as planned, the idea is to start a relationship with the intent of working together in helping one person. The therapist's needs are meant to be met through healthy professional strivings and not unresolved personal issues. There are good reasons that proper therapy is grounded within clear and rational boundaries.

The idealized ending of therapeutic relationships is planned with elements of spontaneity, facilitating the final phases of personal growth in working through the separation, the attendant complex feelings and meanings, acceptance of a transition to resolve problems around loss and change. This type of ending puts the finishing touches on the capacity for healthy relationships with others worked on in earlier phases of therapeutic work.

Personal development relationships are an example of healthy strivings either played out in the wrong setting or exaggerated in the right one. Relationships ideally are a healthy, balanced growth experience for both partners. While helping the other person is a key element in relationships, in romantic relationships, it is balanced, and the role of helper does not eclipse the role of partner.

The important thing at the beginning of relationships is to slow down and attend to one’s own developmental needs more directly. Being able to attend to oneself directly while also giving and receiving help from others in good measure is itself a key developmental accomplishment which sets the stage for flourishing.

Facebook image: SeventyFour/Shutterstock


1. For example, one partner may bend over backward fixing things around the house to prove they care, while the other partner rejects their offerings ungratefully. They can walk away from each other, sure that they did their best—with lingering doubts and righteous indignation.

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