Not Everyone Welcomes Change

Q: Could you comment about the subject of personal growth and how it changes the roles of relationships: platonic, romantic, and family? When people improve themselves morally, ethically, and rationally, therefore increasing their self-esteem, confidence and ability, then their relationships with those around them will change by default, no? Every person plays a role in someone else’s life, so if the core personality starts to shift, so will the role that individual plays in one’s life. Do you think this is a major factor in why relationships fail: Growth or deterioration of a person’s character?

A: One thing is certain: As an individual changes,

the context around him or her will change. As you change, your significant others will have some kind of reaction. The nature of that reaction will vary from person to person.

Let’s say you make a major change in your life. Perhaps you stop drinking or abusing drugs. Or perhaps you start working after living off of relatives for a lengthy period. People in your life with rational standards, and who wished you well, will cheer these changes you’ve made. But people who like you being dependent on them, or who perhaps feel threatened by your progress — you’re now raising the bar on them, and they don’t like it — will have a very different kind of reaction. On top of this, there will be varying degrees of skepticism among those who really want you to change in the way you seem to be changing. Some will rejoice and celebrate almost immediately, while others will need a long time in order to trust that the change is for real.

As a result of all this, there tends to be a process of “cleaning out” and reaffirmation in one’s personal relationships after a period of personal change. People who don’t like, or who don’t respond well to, your change will tend to dramatically exit or drift out of your life altogether. Previous alcoholics have no use for heavy drinkers any longer, and the drinkers have no use for them. Previously non-ambitious moochers turned self-responsible are no longer drawn to fellow moochers; in fact, the ex-moochers are more annoyed and turned off by current moochers than anyone else, because these qualities remind them of who they once were, and no longer wish to be.

All of this applies to marriage as well as family and friendship. For years, psychotherapists and psychologists identified what used to be called a “co-alcoholic” syndrome. Again, the principle can be applied to any positive change in a person, not just the end of alcohol abuse. It was found that some spouses responded negatively to their improving spouses. Why? Usually for unspoken, irrational reasons. “He doesn’t need me any more. He’s becoming healthy and will flourish. This means he’ll leave me.” The error in thinking here is that you, the “co-alcoholic” or “co-dependent” spouse, can even benefit from having a spouse that keeps himself down. Not only is his life not yours to hold back, but you cannot fully benefit from the love of someone who doesn’t love life enough to achieve his potential. People on self-destructive paths are eventually going to leave you anyway, or at least perpetually disappoint you, so their improvement is no threat to your well-being!

This “co-dependent” syndrome (the original use of this term, now widely used in other contexts) was surprisingly frequent. This fact should not be surprising. After all, people who are self-defeating and who hold themselves back for whatever psychological reasons are naturally attracted to people who might love them for their weaknesses rather than their strengths. Once the person becomes healthier, he will tend to shed those relationships that he attracted for unhealthy reasons, in an unhealthy context. Is all of this inevitable? No. A “co-dependent” spouse could recognize the nature of his or her errors in thinking, strive to correct them, and the relationship will subsequently move in a different direction just as the improving/recovering person will. Sadly, this doesn’t usually happen, but it can happen.

One thing is inevitable: If one person in a marital relationship changes significantly, the relationship will have to change along with it. This makes sense because a relationship is a dynamic between two individuals. If one of the two individuals changes significantly, the relationship by definition will never be the same as it once was. Usually, this promises to be a very good thing, at least if the other partner is able and willing to go along.

One of the major reasons relationships end is because one or both partners change. Change is not always bad, and not always good. The end of a relationship is not necessarily a failure. A relationship can be right for its time, although not for all time. Even an unhealthy relationship is sometimes the best a person is capable of, given his knowledge and development at a certain point in time. The key is to always be thinking, and always growing as necessary. Dynamic people sometimes change relationships, but their dynamic, thinking, reasoning and action-oriented lives are what make their lives worthwhile.