There is an unprecedented focus on self-growth in our society. While becoming a more conscious individual would appear to be praiseworthy, it’s not always the case, especially in a marriage. When spouses grow separately they often grow apart. If you find yourself saying, "I feel more enlightened than my spouse", you need to tread very carefully lest your marriage fall apart.
Newly discovered self-revelations sometimes lead to new “discoveries” about the relationship and “realizations” that the marriage is no longer “healthy”. Why is this case? How can working on oneself do more damage than good for a relationship?
Does this mean that it is better not to focus on self-improvement?
What if your spouse isn’t interested in growing together?
Should you remain stagnant?
The answer to these questions lies in defining healthy growth and successful relationships. Successful relationships are ones in which both partners are other-focused. While this does not mean that they are entirely selfless, it does mean making the relationship the priority and realizing that your spouse is not you. Your spouse is an entirely unique individual with his/her own feelings, perspective, and needs. Your job is to honor and hold space for that “other” as opposed to expecting and demanding that he/she think, feel, and behave like you.
One of the dangers of self-growth is that there is the risk of becoming self-absorbed. The ego takes over and the focus increasingly becomes all about "me, my story, and my new found self-awareness". You may notice yourself becoming judgmental and impatient with your spouse. You expect your spouse to be like you, to grow as fast as you, and become as conscious as you. If you feel like you clearly see the deeper root of your spouse’s unhappiness in life or a particular area of his life in which he finds himself stuck, you may get frustrated as to why he just doesn’t get it or isn’t even willing to explore.
As you begin to preach your enlightened ideas, you find them falling on deaf ears. Your spouse may become more reactive and your relationship may deteriorate. While it may be extremely frustrating when you feel like you have “the truth” and no one is buying, your job in marriage is not to be your spouse’s therapist, coach, or guru. It won’t work and is often counterproductive. Your job is to take out your ego and be a compassionate spouse not an enlightened spouse.
Truly integrated selfgrowth is when one can make space for another person and view them without judgment.
It is about knowing that only you can take responsibility for yourself, and that your job is not to change someone else but to offer unconditional love. (Even in situations when it may be appropriate to intervene, such as if you see your spouse in potential danger, it should be out of love and not judgment.) The byproduct of healthy self work is that your spouse will respond to your new changes in a positive way. As you take responsibility for the role you played in the relationship, your spouse will begin to react to you differently.
One of the reasons that self-growth does not always result in better marriages is that it does not take place in the context of relationship. It is much easier to work on oneself in a vacuum than to have to do it in the context of a relationship with another person whom you may not be able to change. That’s why you could meet someone who has done work on himself but has a miserable marriage. While it seems dissonant, it’s because it was not applied with his spouse who is likely pushing his buttons more than anyone else.
We do not live in a vacuum. We grow up getting hurt in relationships with others and the best way to heal those hurts is in relationship. We often find ourselves becoming re-triggered and revisiting familiar wounds with our spouse. We can use our marriage as an opportunity to work through those issues and finally get it right.
While the success of therapy or other healing modalities is partially due to the healing relationship that the therapist provides, it does not compare to the potential healing that the marital relationship can provide in the context of effective couples work that focuses on the couple’s relationship as the healing factor. As long as a couple is married, they have the potential to offer unconditional positive self-regard for each other. In contrast, a therapist, coach, or mentor, no matter how caring they are, is a relationship bound by the clock and compensation.
Couples that grow together in the context of their marriage are able to simultaneously work on their own issues as well as their relationship issues, as the two are intertwined. If your spouse is unwilling to work on the relationship together, work on yourself to be the best you can be and keep in mind that a barometer for your individual growth is an improved relationship.
When you married, you committed to the relationship. It is not something to be discarded when you feel like you have outgrown it. If you become self-aware enough, you will realize that the frustrations you are experiencing with your spouse are often those things that you need to work on to become a more complete person. Abandoning the marriage is an easy way out to avoid doing the real work.
Self-growth is great as long as it doesn’t hurt others in the process. While it is more powerful when couples grow together, one need not remain stagnant if your spouse is unwilling. However, be aware if your enlightenment makes you more judgmental instead of more understanding and compassionate.
If you would like to become enlightened in the fullest way possible, consider doing this together with your spouse, all while having compassion for his/her reluctance, as that is a sign of the truest self- growth. Our 2 day marriage restoration retreat does just that.
Be in touch,
Shlomo and Rivka Slatkin