Around this time of year I often get questions about personal growth and how it changes relationships with friends, romantic partners and family. When people improve themselves in ways that increase their self-esteem and confidence, their relationships also change. I have a longtime friend who was very overweight. When she decided to get bariatric surgery to slim down once and for all, she asked me if I thought her friends would still like her when she lost weight. Very telling! Every person plays a role in someone else’s life, and if their personality changes, so too will that role. Indeed, it’s sometimes a factor in why some relationships ultimately fail.
As individuals change, significant others will react. Let’s say, for example, that you stop drinking or abusing drugs. Or you start working after living off of your relatives. People who are rational and wish you well will cheer these improvements. But people who liked that you were dependent can feel threatened by your progress and will not cheer. There will be varying degrees of skepticism even among those who wish you well. Some will celebrate, while others will need time to trust that it’s for real.
After a major life-change, there is often a “cleaning out” of one’s personal relationships. People who don’t respond well to your improvements will quite possibly exit your life, e.g., heavy drinkers have no use for reformed alcoholics, and vice versa. Non-ambitious moochers who become responsible are no longer drawn to fellow moochers. In fact, my experience has shown that ex-moochers are even more annoyed by current moochers because it reminds them of what they no longer wish to be.
This applies to marriage as well as to family and friends. For years, mental health professionals identified what used to be called a co-alcoholic or codependent syndrome. (The principle can be applied to any positive change in a person, not just alcohol abuse.) It was found that some spouses actually responded negatively to their partners’ improvements. Why? The reasons were usually unspoken and irrational. “He doesn’t need me any more. He’s becoming healthy. This means he’ll leave me.”
Sadly, the codependent partner can never truly benefit from a relationship with someone who doesn’t love life enough to achieve his or her potential. People on self-destructive paths are either going to leave eventually, or will perpetually disappoint. So, from a rational point of view, the partner’s advancements shouldn’t be a threat to the codependent spouse. But sometimes they are, and it’s surprisingly common. After all, people who are self-defeating and hold themselves back are naturally attracted to people who might love them for those very weaknesses. Once that person becomes healthier, the foundation of the relationship is lost. All of this is not necessarily inevitable. With a bit of introspection and self-evaluation, a codependent partner can recognize the nature of his or her errors and strive to correct them. If that can be achieved, the relationship will move in a different direction. I hasten to add, however, that this usually doesn’t happen.
A relationship is a dynamic collaboration. If one person changes significantly, that collaboration will not be the same as it was. One hopes, of course, that this is a good thing; at least if the other partner is willing to go along with the transition.
Change is not always bad or good. In fact, one of the major reasons relationships end is because one or both partners change. But the end of a relationship is not necessarily a failure, and can actually be right for its time. Ironically, even an unhealthy relationship is sometimes the best a person is capable of, given his or her level of maturity.
All that notwithstanding, the key is to always think and grow. Dynamic people may sometimes change relationships, but their reasoning and action-oriented attitudes are what make their lives worthwhile. And the new connections they attract could quite possibly be healthier and even more fulfilling.