couples therapy
imago therapy

Personal Growth in a Committed Relationship

from publication series REFLECTIONS ON RELATIONSHIPS  (Vol 1. No. 43, October 17 - 23, 2003)

A client and I were talking about her past. She had married very young after losing both parents while a teenager. You can imagine how important it was to make sure nothing interrupted this new family she was forming. Looking back over the years, however, she feels that the sacrifices she made to maintain the marriage at all costs kept her from growing up and, emotionally, she stayed stuck as a girl. She put on blinders that kept her focused only on the relationship without any acknowledgment that both she and her husband had legitimate, independent needs for personal growth. Her health and self-esteem went downhill. Now, 20 years later, she is taking stands and tending to herself. She finds that her chronic health problems are subsiding and she is starting to grow and change. She is surprised at how likeable this new self is.

We wondered if you have to stay out of committed relationships during the passing years to achieve personal growth. My own history shows that I must have thought so. I allowed myself the comforts of relationships during the 20 years between marriages, but made the kind of matches that I subconsciously knew could never last and was never fully committed to them. I guess I needed to reserve, inside, the feeling that I was really on my own. I thought this worked for me, and on the outside it did. But as my client and I agreed, going it alone, whether in or out of a relationship, has some built in limitations. When alone, you can learn everything about yourself except one thing: how to build a committed, loving, safe relationship. After all, when it comes to personal growth, where else but in a committed relationship do you get to explore your most basic humanity; that is, your private hopes and fears for finding and trusting in intimate love, the vulnerability that accompanies openness and honesty, and your ability to be kind, gentle, loving and accepting of another flawed human being. This part of your inner world remains untouched. Yet, this is what we all want.

Not getting to know this part of yourself is a steep price to pay for autonomy. So finding ways to grow from within a relationship is the trick. The key, I think, is to recognize that the personal growth that can happen from within a working relationship may feel, at times, too limited, but it can actually be broader and richer. When in a committed relationship, not only can you learn about yourself in regard to the world, but at the same time, the part that can only be reached in connection with another is activated and begins to grow. Your outer world and your inner world develop simultaneously.

Both partners would have to want this kind of relationship. Safe and secure in the nest with each other on the one hand, yet with the freedom and attendant risks and rewards of going forth alone in the world on the other. To move a relationship toward this kind of love requires the balance between developing intimacy, safety, and gentleness with your partner while also feeling free to pursue your own satisfaction in hobbies, career, friends and neighbors, kids, and general self-care. This is a balance that my client feels she never had from within the committed relationship and I never had while avoiding it.

The freedom to pursue personal growth while also attending to the growth of the relationship would be an important theme for partners to discuss on a continuing basis if they don't already. The topic can be opened simply by choosing the right time and saying something like: "You know I'm dedicated to your growth and happiness while we're in this relationship. I'll just listen while you tell me of your hopes and fears for yourself," then, 'What do you need from me?' If both partners are committed to the relationship, and want it to last, they must constantly reassess that the balance is serving both partners. An ongoing conversation of this type is almost sacred.

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