I got a newsletter today from an outfit that does self-improvement and personal development work and I was intrigued by one of the articles. The headline wondered if one partner can change without leaving the other one behind. It caught my attention because my husband and I are both in the middle of major life shifts (me opening my practice and him going to seminary), so I was curious to see what they had to say about the impact these big changes can have on relationships, and I was intrigued by this idea of being “left behind.”
In the article I found the usual handwaving at the idea that we can’t change other people. It was brief and implied that the idea was assumed. Like, “of course you can’t change anybody else, only yourself.” And then the article proceeded to describe how you might actually be able to change your partner if you do it right – indirectly and by setting a good example, you know being a great role model for your child, I mean partner. You can praise them and be kind so they WANT to change. You can ask supportive questions rather than giving advice so that your partner will feel supported in pursuing change. You can make changing with your partner FUN, again so that your partner will want to change. So we can’t change other people but we sure can try to make them want to change?
What would happen if we just decided that we can change and our partners can be whoever they need to be? What if only one person changing doesn’t mean anyone is being left behind? What if sharing a life path with someone doesn’t mean being cemented at the hip but pursuing our own interests and coming together in enjoyment and fulfillment? What if we stopped asking other people to change when we are uncomfortable?
Don’t get me wrong. I think couples can change together, grow together, share their learning and inspiration. We do it all of the time, but constantly wanting my husband to change in specific ways tends to lead to a great deal of disappointment on my part and confusion and irritation on his.
What if instead of putting all of this time and energy into leading that horse to water, we just stopped to take a nice long drink (not as a role model but for refreshment) and checked out our thoughts about our partners? What if we decided to accept them and believe that adults get to be who they are? What if we decided to change our thoughts and our feelings and let our partners be to develop and grow in their own way, at their own pace, in their own time? What could flourish in a relationship with that kind of space? What could you accomplish if you weren’t so worried about inspiring your partner’s growth?
You can lead a horse to water, or you can trust your partner to know when she is thirsty and let her sort it out for herself. That doesn’t mean you can’t be supportive. And it doesn’t mean you won’t inspire each other to grow. What it does mean is that you won’t be hinging your own happiness on whether or not your partner jumps through hoops or folds the laundry or goes to law school. What it means is that you get to be whole, and so does your partner. Two whole people, with whole hearts and separate identities – together by choice for mutual celebration and support. Sounds pretty good to me.