The Truth About Growing Apart

Worried that you & your spouse are growing in different directions? As long as you're both growing, that's OK. A new book by Morrie & Arleah Shechtman explains why.

You hear it all the time from veterans of divorce. "We simply grew apart." It's enough to create a sense of fatalism about marriage itself. It may even inhibit your commitment to personal growth, as you reason, "If I don't pursue my Ph.D. or start the landscaping business I've always dreamed of, I can devote more time to my marriage."

Growing apart is the No. 1 reason marriages fail. But according to psychotherapist Morrie Shechtman, there are things you can do to decrease the likelihood of it happening to you & your partner – they just may not be the things you'd expect.

"What people usually mean when they say 'we grew apart' is that one partner changed & the other didn't," says Shechtman, co-author, w/wife & business partner, Arleah, of Love in the Present Tense: How to Have a High Intimacy, Low Maintenance Marriage (Bull Publishing Company, 2004).   "Quite simply, a good marriage fosters personal growth & vice versa. If your partner doesn't grow, then he becomes boring to you. If you don't grow, then you become boring to yourself."

The Shechtmans insist that a fulfilling marriage, like a fulfilling life, is not about comfort zones & status quos. To avoid growing apart, you & your partner must grow together. Not necessarily in the same direction, mind you, but grow you must. The Shechtmans offer the following tips:

  • Make sure personal growth is a shared value for you & your partner. As the Shechtmans emphasize throughout their book, good marriages are those in which partners have identical values.

One of the most critical shared values is a commitment to growth. If you view yourself as a work in progress & want to take risks & explore opportunities until you draw your last breath, yet your partner wants to work the same job for 40 years & vegetate on the sofa every night, the marriage is probably doomed.

Harsh, perhaps, but true. Commit to personal growth yourself, & challenge your partner to do the same.

  • Dedicate yourself to your life's purpose. Give it your all-out effort, making full use of your talents & values. "Marriage isn't your mission in life," say the Shechtmans. "Neither is raising children.

In a great marriage, each partner is deeply committed & actively involved in some endeavor outside the marriage. When one partner is dedicated to an outside purpose while the other is dedicated only to supporting his spouse, then the supporting spouse ends up living thru his partner in the same way unfulfilled parents live thru their children.

The one who is fully engaged with the outside world soon grows bored w/her devoted supporter."

  • Realize that selfless devotion is boring. Be interesting. In Love in the Present Tense: How to Have a High Intimacy, Low Maintenance Marriage, the authors tell a story about Bernard, a physician & Stacy, his devoted, physically fit wife who kept the house immaculate, cooked gourmet meals & pushed her children to achieve.

One day, Bernard left Stacy for an unkempt & outspoken photojournalist two years his senior. Why? Because the photojournalist was interesting.

The Shechtmans point out that Stacy is a victim, not of Bernard, but of the myth that selfless devotion keeps marriages alive. "As we see it, Stacy had deserted Bernard long before he announced that he was deserting her," say the authors. "In living thru Bernard instead of cultivating a life of her own, she had failed to become a full person & thereby deprived him of a full partner."

  • Assume personal responsibility for your own inner life. The Shechtmans believe that a person's emotional texture is, in large part, shaped by the way he or she felt in childhood.

Your moods or feelings, known as your familiars, can be positive or negative. It's your negative familiars that stand in the way of fully enjoying adult life w/the partner you've chosen.

Once you realize this truth, you're free to explore your feelings, grieve the unhappiness of your childhood & move on. But the important point is that this is your responsibility & yours alone.

"In a great marriage, both partners assume full responsibility for their own inner lives," say the Shechtmans. "This means that you don't view your partner as the cause of what you're feeling. Nor do you view yourself as the cause of what he's feeling. You don't blame your partner for your own unhappiness, nor do you blame yourself for his."

  • Challenge your partner. Unconditional acceptance is for infants. The Shechtmans assert that caring for your partner means holding him accountable for living up to his best vision of himself & continuing to grow.

"Challenge is a vote of confidence, a sign of respect," they say. "Conversely, accepting people exactly as they are is a form of abandonment. The message you send when you unconditionally accept a partner's self-destructive or self-defeating behavior is that you believe she can't do better. Ultimately, this defeats the marriage itself. When you don't challenge your partner, you are essentially giving up on her."

  • Don't confuse physical togetherness w/intimacy. Many people fall into the trap of believing that they must spend "X" number of hours per week talking, sharing meals or making love w/their partner. But the Shechtmans insist that time spent together is no guarantee of intimacy. Real intimacy is based on the quality of communication.

If all you have is 10 minutes a day, make those 10 minutes count by sharing w/your partner what's happening in your inner life & listening w/full attention when your partner shares w/you – rather than engaging in "information dumps."

The truth is, if each partner is living a rich, full life, you probably won't have large amounts of time to spend basking in each other's company. You'll be too busy learning & growing as a person, which in turn will strengthen your marriage.

Finally, if you've read these tips (especially the first one) w/the sinking feeling that your partner isn't committed to personal growth, take heart. Shechtman says that most people intuitively choose partners w/a strong core values match. It's just that this truth is lost amidst the "shoulds," marriage myths & psychological storms that are ruffling the surface of your relationship.

"It's unlikely that your partner's fulfilled working a dead-end job & watching 3 hours of sitcoms every night," he says. "More likely, he's allowing himself to be crippled by his familiars.

Or perhaps he's just succumbing to laziness. Either way, rather than abandoning him, you can & should, challenge him to confront his issues, grow as a person & shape a worthwhile life – not for you, but for himself. That's the kind of courage that helps marriages grow stronger rather than growing apart. That's what marriage is. That's what love is."