Can a Happy Marriage and Individual Growth Co-Exist? A La Jolla Marriage Counselor Says YES!

In his popular New York Times article, “The All or Nothing Marriage,” researcher and Northwestern University psychology professor Eli Finkel claims that that the goal of marriage in the 21st Century has shifted. Finkel asserts that most couples now find the 20th Century’s “companionate marriage”—which fulfilled individual needs for love and intimacy—inadequate. At this point, partners assume the marriage must provide not only love, but also “a vehicle for self discovery and individual growth.” Termed the “self-expressive marriage,” this demanding union has the best chances of being considered a happy marriage. In other words, the marriage of 2014 and beyond must not only serve needs for support AND love, it must help each partner achieve individual goals in career, hobby and other areas or be considered unsatisfying . . . not a happy marriage. Finkel concludes it’s impossible to achieve a marriage meets both the goal of great connection AND the mutual support that ends in ultimate self-actualization. People should either aim to be a support partner, sacrificing their own growth and career achievement, OR reconcile with the fact that their marriage will be somewhat empty while each partner toils away after his or her own career, hobbies and emotional growth.

Not So Fast, Dr. Finkel . . .

As a La Jolla Marriage counselor for over 30 years, I reject this conclusion. Finkel expresses a very narrow perspective, an extreme point of view. More, he generalizes one finding to the entire population. Both are always red flags for me. His conclusions an all or nothing, black and white. Time and energy allotted to individual growth and time and energy allotted to a close relationship are not mutually exclusive. First, you can’t stop individual growth. It’s a natural process that occurs often without the individual even realizing it’s occurring. More, however, Imago relationship theory firmly asserts that personal growth happens as we nourish our partners and the relationship. Caring for and understanding others creates emotional growth. It broadens our capacity for compassion, even compassion for ourselves and the children of the union. The act of nurturing your relationship grows you as an individual.

The Happy Marriage: Balancing Individuality and Union

Both connection to another and private time can feel incredibly nurturing. Relationships are a dance between maintaining an identity as a separate individual and experiencing a sense of oneness with your partner, a two-step that can get tricky. Striving for both individual growth and relationship growth may appear on its surface to be two different things. However, in a mindful relationship, the partners learn that caring, compassion, intimacy, sensitivity and vulnerability are all qualities of personal growth. Inherent in sensitivity and compassion is the idea that, at times, one’s own needs and desires need to be put on the back burner for the good of the relationship. While perhaps an immediate goal is lost, a more powerful one is gained.

Couples who practice mindfulness in marriage learn to lessen their focus on “what can this relationship to for me,” and put more energy into, “what can I do for this relationship?” For this reason, they’re able to care for their relationship AND themselves. In a mindful relationship, loving your partner means committing to giving him or her what he or she needs without asking for anything in return. That may mean playing cards with the friends shifts from every week to once a month, going to the gym twice a week instead of four. Partners who consider these changes as sacrifices have an even bigger challenge ahead. Mindfulness in relationship encourage a “no strings” commitment to the welfare of our partner. The ultimate practice of mindfulness is non-attachment or giving without expecting anything in return. In this way, we learn to love unconditionally. At the same time, we’ve achieved the ultimate in personal growth.