What Are “Personal Development Relationships”?
~ April 2021 ~ People seek close relationships for many reasons: the need to be loved, for a family, longings for a life partner with whom to grow old, for fun and enjoyment, for pragmatic purposes, for financial advantages, and so on. We may be completely unaware of the reasons, or they may hover on the edge of consciousness.
A straightjacket built for two
Co-authors and I have written extensively about “irrelationship”, a pattern of relationship in which the unrecognized fear of intimacy drives couples to behave as if they were both trying their hardest to make the relationship work—that very effort itself is a distraction to hide the fact they are actually avoiding closeness.1
Dysfunctional relationships are often rooted in unhealthy dependency needs and underdeveloped self-awareness. We often pick partners who can’t meet those needs. Even with those who might, unresolved personal problems can wreak havoc.
Identifying “Personal Development Relationships”
Along parallel lines, there is a pattern I’ve observed over the course of many years of clinical work and study of psychology and relationship I think of as a “personal development relationship”. The main driver of the relation is to fill unmet developmental needs, usually for one more than the other.
We rarely make romantic choices fully aware of what we want them for psychologically, for instance, dating someone seemingly more mature and emotionally put together in the hopes that it will somehow rub off or lift us up.
The most glaring personal development relationships I’ve seen are accidental, but feel like destiny, based on powerful chemistry fueled by developmental irresolution, and not true compatibility.
Desiring and being desired blinds us to our own and other’s motives. Simple coincidences, sharing a favorite book or song, a similar life experience, create a mirage of destiny. At least for a little while…
The road to good intentions is paved with hell
In personal development relationships, there is from the start an element of seeming altruism to help the other person be the best version of themselves. At first, this may be welcome, infinitely appealing even. Particularly if our primary caregivers, conventionally our parents, did not take on the task of helping us develop into our best selves, we will approach adult relationships ill-prepared.
This void, the meaning of which evades awareness, creates a dark attractor. This is the void formed when primary caregivers are unable to regard the child as the center of the world as developmentally required, stunting the growth of healthy narcissism and a stable, well-integrated sense of self.
Eventually, the personal development dynamic undermines intimacy, as the lopsided loop of helping and being helped supersedes opportunities for true connection. When one comes to see themselves as more evolved, and the other as a fix-up project, it spells the death of romance.
Unless there is an even give-and-take, with mutual growth, the relationship turns from an intimate relationship into an unofficial coaching relationship. What at first was an oasis becomes a prison.
When insistence becomes coercion
Personal development relationships can be subtle, leading to a tepid ending, nevertheless often with significant heartbreak, They can also be destructive, ending with abusive control-oriented dynamics and terrible cataclysm. This is especially the case when there is underlying developmental trauma organized around pairings of pathological dependency and toxic narcissism.
“I’m just trying to help you” becomes a thinly veiled cycle of coercion, with one person’s non-acceptance of their own flaws resonating with the other’s conscious self-doubt. It alleviates the need to deal with their own personal problems, as each becomes the other’s allegedly beloved nemesis. A spotlight is turned on every flaw, and normal foibles are magnified, overshadowing the many positives.
One partner feels justified to hold the other accountable even when they don’t want help anymore, even when they are obviously hurting them. The perpetrator claims to be the victim, and the victim flips back and forth between accepting and rejecting their gaslit reality.
Healthy endings for personal development relationships
At the end, the biggest growth step is, ironically, to end the relationship. That final step of self-affirmation sometimes may be a deep learning, but sometimes just resets the cycle.
“I’d like to kill you, you selfish brute. Why didn’t you leave me where you picked me out of—in the gutter? You thank God it’s all over, and that now you can throw me back again there, do you?”—George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion
With the prototypical parent-child relationship, ending is analogous to growing up and leaving home. If the parent-child relationship has been good enough, leaving the home is an experience of joy, loss, acceptance and healthy transition.
Of course, the perfect fairy-tale ending is rare. Sometimes failure to launch and empty nest syndromes become unresolved arcs into unmet adult developmental needs and irrelationship. In stark cases, adult children may find that the only way to escape from a destructive parent is through a romantic relationship, but the reprieve is almost always temporary because the partner choice remains shaped by underlying psychological distortion.
The therapeutic ideal
Formal therapeutic relationships are designed to focus on the personal development of one person, without dual, competing roles. While they don’t always go as planned, the idea is to start a relationship with the intent of working together in helping one person. The therapist’s needs are meant to be met through healthy professional strivings and not unresolved personal issues. There are good reasons that proper therapy is grounded within clear and rational boundaries.
The idealized ending of therapeutic relationships is planned with elements of spontaneity, facilitating the final phases of personal growth in working through the separation, the attendant complex feelings and meanings, acceptance of transition to resolve problems around loss and change. This type of ending puts the finishing touches on the capacity for healthy relationships with others worked on in earlier phases of therapeutic work.
Personal development relationships are an example of healthy strivings played out either in the wrong setting, or exaggerated in the right one. Relationships ideally are a healthy, balanced growth experience for both partners. While helping the other person is a key element in relationships, in romantic relationships it is balanced, and the role of helper does not eclipse the role of partner.
The important thing at the beginning of relationships is to slow down and attend to one’s own developmental needs more directly. Being able to attend to oneself directly, while also giving and receiving help from others in good measure, is itself a key developmental accomplishment which sets the stage for flourishing.
A version of this story originally appeared here on psychologytoday.com