There are some people who have what I call “easy marriages,” i.e., it appears to be easier for them than for some others to be happily married. These couples may be well matched in terms of personality and temperament. They may encounter few obstacles and challenges with the potential to undermine their happiness. They may have chosen well when they married, picking a partner with a strong likelihood of finishing strong after decades of marriage. Frankly, these kinds of couples don’t interest me much. They’re stable, salt-of-the-earth type of folks who make our communities better places to live, but they don’t offer much insight about how to persist in the face of difficulty. In fact, they may give the impression happiness is only attainable for those with a particular kind of DNA or set of circumstances. All others might as well submit themselves to lives of drama and misery.
I find myself most intrigued by people who persist in the face of enormous challenges, debilitating setbacks and demoralizing difficulties. What keeps these folks going? Why do they persist in loving someone when others have thrown in the towel and moved on? These are the people who give us hope. These are the people I want to know more about.
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck Ph.D. sheds some interesting light on this topic in her book, Mindset. According to Dweck, “People have to decide what kinds of relationships they want: ones that bolster their egos or ones that challenge them to grow? In terms of an ideal mate, people with a “fixed mindset” said they wanted someone who would “put them on a pedestal, make them feel perfect, and worship them.” In other words, they saw the perfect mate as someone who would revere and preserve their fixed qualities.
People with a “growth mindset,” however, sought a different kind of mate. They said their ideal mate would “see their faults and help them to work on them; challenge them to become a better person, and encourage them to learn new things.” Dweck is careful to differentiate a “growth mindset” from one that is harsh, critical and undermining of self-esteem. Rather, she underscores the essential perspective of seeing one’s self as someone who has more to learn, who is able to do so, and who actively pursues feedback from others—including a spouse, without becoming defensive and angry.
Let’s start with what it’s not. Once again, according to Dweck, a fixed mindset with regard to an intimate relationship would include believing that your qualities are fixed, (i.e. that you are incapable of change), that your partner’s qualities are fixed (i.e., she/he will never change), and the dynamics of the relationship between the two of you are incapable of alteration. With this perspective, life is either perfect or it’s not. You’ve found the right person or you haven’t. People rarely change and you’ve made a poor choice.
With a growth mindset you recognize that relationships take work, and some relationships take more work than others. This is especially true with someone you’ve committed to live with “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, ‘til death do us part.” You also admit that some situations and circumstances require more work than others, e.g., depression in one’s partner, job loss, illness of spouse or family member, and other life-altering events. We may meet and marry our mate in one context and find ourselves living with them in a completely different setting five years later, one in which neither of us could have predicted how the other might have reacted.
A second problem with the fixed mindset is that we typically assume problems in the relationship indicate problems with a person. Since we almost automatically assume that the problem lies with our partner, it’s easy to slide into believing that if we changed partners, we would no longer have problems. The growth mindset accepts imperfections in others and still believes that in most cases a good relationship is possible. (Dangerous and pathological personalities do exist, but these are typically few and far between.)
When it’s all said and done, we really do have a choice. We can embrace the notion of growth and change in ourselves and others, or we can reject it. It all comes down to what we believe.
To learn more about the growth mindset, see Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.