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Author: Lisa Gordon, PhD – Family Therapist & Staff Development Specialist
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Destiny versus Growth Beliefs: Thinking Your Way to a Better Marriage

Author: Lisa Gordon, PhD – Family Therapist & Staff Development Specialist

“Our universe grants every soul a twin – a reflection of themselves – the kindred spirit – And no matter where they are or how far away they are from each other – even if they are in different dimensions, they will always find one another.  This is destiny; this is love.”  –  Julie Dillon

“The minute I heard my first love story, I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was.  Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.  They’re in each other all along.”  –  Rumi

Enamored youth and wedding guests heartily delight in these quotes and the idea of romantic partners as soulmates.  Couples researchers, on the other hand, know that a belief in soulmates corresponds to several unhealthy relationship behaviors.

Couples researchers divide relationship partners into destiny theorists and growth theorists.  Destiny theorists believe that romantic partners are either meant for each other or not, without possibility for partners to become right for each other.  They spend their energy determining whether their romantic partner is “the one,” as the primary determinant of success in a relationship is choosing one’s destined other half.  Growth theorists, alternatively, believe that the primary determinant of success in a relationship is partners’ efforts to overcome challenges.  Growth theorists believe romantic partners and relationships can change and grow.

Although destiny theorists sound exceptionally romantic, their more rigid conceptualization of romantic partners invites multiple avenues for relationship sabotage.  For example:

  1. When destiny theorists experience a negative relationship event, such as conflict, they interpret the event as testimony that their romantic partner is not “the one.” Because this testimony is disheartening and threatening, destiny theorists may react to negative relationship events with avoidance, denial, and withdrawal.  Growth theorists, however, tend to react to negative relationship events with coping strategies that repair the connection.
  2. Destiny theorists feel satisfied in their relationship to the extent that their actual partner minimally deviates from the image of their ideal partner, as this minor actual-ideal discrepancy confirms that the destiny theorist has chosen the “correct” partner. Unlike growth theorists whose relationship satisfaction remains fairly steady, destiny theorists suffer decreased relationship satisfaction during moments when their actual partner slips from the ideal pedestal.
  3. Because destiny theorists believe romantic partners and relationships are unchangeable, they do not seek couples therapy when challenges arise. Growth theorists, on the other hand, believe that romantic partners and relationships are malleable, and thus, can flourish in the face of challenge with adequate support.

Perhaps destiny theorists can maintain their lovely notion of soulmates while adapting growth theorists’ more constructive reactions to inevitable moments of disharmony.  First, destiny theorists can lessen their fear of relationship conflict by reflecting upon the following truisms of the growth theorist: “A successful relationship evolves through hard work and resolution of incompatibilities,” “A successful relationship is mostly a matter of learning to resolve conflicts with a partner,” and “Challenges and obstacles in a relationship can make love even stronger.”  Recalling how relationship misunderstanding indeed effected both couple and individual maturation may lend credence to growth theory.  Second, growth theorists believe that romantic partners can lessen the future occurrence of their hurtful behavior and that the context surrounding this hurtful behavior is at least as influential as the personality of the partner.  These beliefs underlie the following healthy interpersonal behaviors of growth theorists: (a) Growth theorists consider the possibility that partners’ hurtful behaviors stems from temporary circumstances.  For example, if George oversleeps and reneges on his promise to cook Maribel pancakes in the morning, Maribel the growth theorist would attribute George’s oversleeping to his temporary state of fatigue, whereas, Maribel the destiny theorist would attribute George’s oversleeping to his permanent trait of laziness.  Maribel is likely to feel greater hostility and resentment toward a George who is everlastingly lazy than toward a George whose fatigue will likely soon recede.  To improve their reactions to unfortunate incidents, destiny theorists can practice noting ALL of the possible explanations for these incidents, not only a partner’s personality traits but also the multitude of changeable states that accompany being human.  (b) Growth theorists believe their romantic partners when they promise to learn from and lessen their incidence of missteps.  Thus, growth theorists are more likely to forgive, unlike destiny theorists, who doubt partners’ ability to rectify misbehavior.  As a precursor to forgiveness, destiny theorists can notice partners’ track record of changing behavior, for example adapting to a new job, learning to diaper an infant, or reducing substance use.  Finally, focused on skillfully persevering in coupledom, growth theorists react to relationship threats with the entire arsenal of relationship-maintaining strategies, including couples therapy.  Destiny theorists, however, avoid acknowledging relationship threat to themselves, each other, or a couples therapists, for acknowledging relationship threat is akin to acknowledging that partners are, in fact, incompatible.  If destiny theorists could trust that acknowledging relationship threat is only akin to acknowledging that partners are, in fact, normal humans, then perhaps destiny theorists could access support in navigating relationship hurdles.

Perhaps mundane and unromantic, the following Criss Jami quote resonates with couples researchers and growth theorists, and perhaps destiny theorists, too, with some rethinking:

“To say that one waits a lifetime for his soulmate to come around is a paradox.  People eventually get sick of waiting, take a chance on someone, and by the art of commitment become soulmates, which takes a lifetime to perfect.”