After talking with the man and the woman, I figured out why they divorced.
He told me that he saw all of her problems before they married, but he thought she would mature and grow out of the things that bothered him. She told me that he had remained exactly what he had been when they dated, but she thought she could change him. Neither seemed to think he or she needed to grow or change.
A bit of questioning convinced me that the two people never actually knew each other. Yes, they knew the other person’s habits and preferences and moods. But they were clueless about having any real understanding of what made the other what he or she is. I knew things about both of them that the other didn’t know — and I don’t really know this couple that well. Some things are just obvious if you’re paying attention.
It was psychologist David Keirsey who introduced me to the concept of the “Pygmalion project” in his book, “Please Understand Me.” It’s the tendency that many people have to try to mold another person to be just like himself. It’s someone seeing himself as perfectly healthy and mature as he or she is — and trying to force the other person to adjust himself or herself to fit.
“This is just who I’m always going to be,” says the person. “But I have to change her [or him] to be just like me.”
I’ve been listening to a long audiobook this week about psychology. It’s been a painful experience at times. In a couple of sections of the material, I was horrified to see things about myself which I already knew but hadn’t allowed myself to become conscious of.
I hate moments like that, but I know I need them. They’re the only way I grow. I know that when I read something (or listen to it) and grow so uncomfortable that I want to quit reading, something is hitting me in a sensitive spot — and I need to pay attention.
I keep wanting to think I’ve learned all I need to learn about myself. I keep thinking I’ve become mature enough and I’ve corrected enough of my faults to reach my potential. But I keep finding out that I’m wrong.
Most of us — including me, at times — have the tendency to think we are what we ought to be and that we can show other people what they ought to be. But much of the time, that creates a dysfunctional mess — as confused and imperfect people try to force those they love to be imperfect in their particular ways.
It’s often easy for us to see what’s wrong with other people, but just as often we’re blind to the ways that we are just as dysfunctional and have just as much need to change. Sometimes even more.
Here’s what I know about myself — and I’m pretty sure the same is true for you. I need somebody to hold me accountable, but only in loving ways. I need someone to whom I can confess the things I come to understand about myself — someone through whose eyes I can see myself when I’m blind — and someone who is capable of lovingly helping me to get back on course.
We are all sensitive to criticism — some more than others — so this sort of relationship can exist only between two people who trust each other deeply and who are truly vulnerable. It’s a sort of relationship that can exist only between two people who know one another deeply and who never violate the confidence and vulnerability that has been shared.
But one problem is that some people are terrified of vulnerability or true intimacy. Some people know they need it, but they’re terrified of it. Without realizing it, they’re afraid they will be rejected if this other person sees the real them. They are eager to continue projecting an image — playing a role — in order to appear perfect.
Every one of us is flawed in many ways. Ironically, the less you’re aware of your flaws and dysfunctional patterns, the more vulnerable you are to those patterns destroying your relationships with others. And the less likely you are to trust someone enough to have the sort of relationship I’m talking about — one of mutual growth.
I don’t want someone to mold me into being exactly like her and I don’t want to try to mold someone to be just like me. In fact, I don’t want a partner just like me. I want someone with compatible values and goals and desires, but I want someone who has different strengths and weaknesses from my own. And I want us to both be able to lovingly trust one another to consciously hold ourselves accountable for being the best we can be.
I want my partner to be the best version of herself that she can be — and I want to be the best version of myself that I can be.
In this psychology book I’ve been listening to, it goes into great detail about how different types of personalities can be amazing when they’re at their best and how they can be dysfunctional messes at their worst. As I listened to sections which described me, it was as though the authors had been reading my mind and knew my history. They knew what I was like at my best — and they knew what a mess I could be at my worst.
I heard other people who I knew described, for both good and bad. There was a section about my father which was so perfectly accurate and painfully descriptive that I kept having to turn it off to catch my breath and reset my thoughts. And there was a long section that describes a woman I know — parts describing the impressive parts which helped me fall in love with her and parts describing dysfunctional tendencies that she hides but which can easily sidetrack her at times.
I found myself thinking — not for the first time — that working through this sort of thing is best when you have a partner working with you. The purpose isn’t for each person to “fix” the other. The purpose is for both people to understand each other and to know strengths and weaknesses — and for each person to lovingly hold the other accountable for being his or her best.
When I thought about that couple I know — the ones I talked with this week who are now divorced — I knew good and well that this sort of process would be alien to them. I suspect it would be alien to most married couples.
We all start out as acorns that start growing into baby trees. Some never get the nutrients or water or sunlight they need, so they stay tiny or even die. A tree out in the open by itself is more vulnerable to being destroyed by wind or a hundred other things.
But sometimes trees can grow together — shielding each other from excessive winds and letting each get just the right sunlight — and they grow stronger from being together. There are a couple of trees like that in my front yard. You see how big they are in the picture above. Their root systems work together under the soil to carry water and nutrients and even messages. (I learned that just last year. It’s fascinating how forests communicate through their roots.)
People can be like this in the right kind of relationships. If they trust each other and love each other and are committed to vulnerability and honesty and accountability, they can help each other grow.
Most people act as though the growth of a relationship is pretty much over by the time two people say “I do.” They act as though neither really needs to change. The truth is that the start of a marriage is just the beginning of change — if you do the relationship right.
I hope I’m fortunate enough to have a wife who knows me like this and who is willing to hold me accountable for changing in the ways I share with her that I want to change. I hope I can be able to hear her share the things she sees in me that need to change — things I’m too blind to see. I hope she is willing to be vulnerable with me and trust me to hold her accountable for changing things that need to change. And I hope she can hear the things I see about her which she’s too blind to see in herself.
Mutual self-growth can change individuals and it can change a couple. It can create a healthy template for children to observe and learn from. It can help everybody in a family be happier and healthier. It can change your world.
Anybody who’s willing to commit to this sort of mutual self-growth will find his or her world changed forever. Trust me. I think you’ll be shocked at how much happier you’ll be.