Is Personal Growth a Danger to Your Relationship?

Which is more important, your career or your relationship?

Posted Apr 22, 2012

In my last post, I discussed the possibility of “finding yourself”— or, more accurately, creating your self — while in a romantic relationship. A commenter asked an excellent follow-up question: assuming you undergo this process of self-creation, including pursuing opportunities for personal growth and development, how do you know your partner will still love you as you change? Is it possible you can grow "too much" for your partner, so that what he or she loved about you is no longer there? And should that stop you?

The first step toward answering these questions is to recognize that we rarely change our entire selves in one fell swoop. When such things happen, they're usually due to severe brain injuries, after which a person’s friends and family say that he or she is a completely different person; but in more common circumstances, personal change happens gradually. You take up a new hobby, you go back to school, you change careers, or you even adopt new goals and dreams. Some of these changes are more substantial than others, but in terms of your overall personality and character, they are incremental changes, hardly resulting in a “different” you.

More important, these decisions are based (ideally) on the firm foundation of your existing self, the “you” that arises from the long history of all your past decisions, which are based on, and in the end reaffirm and reshape, your character. In this sense, things we do for personal growth and development are like any other choices we make: they are expressions of our selves, simply revealing aspects of them that other people did not know we had. In many cases, we did not know we had them either! How many times have you discovered a new activity or passion and thought, “How could I not have known about this? It’s like I was born to do this!”

If a person loves you, he or she should be happy when you’ve found something new that you love and helps you grow as a person. In the process, you probably did change a little bit: you spend more time at a new hobby or with new friends, and maybe you prioritize things differently, including time spent with your partner. But for the most part, you’re still the same person, the person your partner fell in love with.

But what if your partner’s feelings do change? There are several possible explanations. One is that he or she loved you (if you can call it that) for relatively superficial reasons. Let’s say you originally met and bonded over your common love of 1980s pop music, and then your tastes changed. If this results in a change in your partner’s feelings for you, then presumably he or she never valued you based on anything deeper than that shared interest. (Now that’s tainted love.) Ideally, our partners love us for who we are intrinsically: our personality, character, and values, all foundational elements of our selves which are less likely to change as we find new opportunities for growth and development.

But the other possibility is that, over time, perhaps you have changed some of those foundational aspects of your self. While our core personality, character, and values don’t change upon finding a new hobby or career path, they can and often do change over time as all the small decisions accumulate and build on each other. And even though you may see this change as beneficial, your partner may not, and this is perfectly understandable. Your partner fell in love with you as you were at a certain point in time. If the most fundamental things about you change over the years, your partner may not recognize the person he or she fell in love with, and may find it hard to maintain the same love for you. (It would be hard to blame your partner for this; however, your partner should not be surprised when the changed “you” doesn’t value the same things in him or her that the “old” you did.)

Furthermore, if you’re undergoing this personal change while involved with someone, your choices are naturally affected by your relationship. For example, when a person in a relationship receives a job offer that requires him or her to move across the country, that person is naturally torn between his or her own career advancement and the relationship. It may be easy for some to say “don’t let a man [or woman] keep you from a great opportunity,” but this snap judgment reflects an overly individualistic sense of one’s self. A career you’ve spent years to nurture and develop is important to who you are, but so is a relationship on which you may have worked just as hard. Choosing between them, if you must, is often a heart-wrenching decision, precisely because both are so important to you and your sense of who you are.

We like to think that, in the romantic ideal, people love each other out of a keen appreciation for their partners’ most fundamental selves. They continue to love each other through mutual growth and change based on a profound devotion to who each other really is. As the partners grow, they make choices that enable them to change with each other and their relationship, making it stronger with every change. But we can never know another person (or even ourselves) that perfectly, and since our selves are what we make of them, we can change them. While we hope our partners continue to love and appreciate us as we change, it is important to acknowledge the possibility that we can change them fundamentally enough to make even the most deeply appreciative partner wonder who we are. One can be legitimately surprised when the person he or she loves seems to be slipping away, replaced by another person who looks just the same but behaves very differently. This can be tragic, but in the end it may lead both people, who once may have been a wonderful fit for each other, to find new partners who are better fits for who they are now.

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See here for a list of some of my previous Psychology Today posts on relationships and other topics.

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