By: Cristina Trette, MA, LMFT
I have come to know that every single one of us will struggle on and off throughout life. Two steps forward, one step back, seems to be the way. I have also noticed that for some, after having a big setback, they will crumble and never find their out. Others are able to use the struggle itself to propel forward, and immerse in learning and growth after the fall. What makes the difference between those who fall apart, and can't get back up, and those who get back up and leap ahead?
Mindset, it appears.
What I believe about myself when I fail matters. Do I believe I am inherently capable, so I keep going towards the dream, or take a side step toward a different dream? Or do I believe that I don’t have what it takes, that I am innately flawed, and I give up on dreams all together?
Having a growth mindset, a term coined by Dr. Carol Dweck, may be the most important factor in predicting an individual’s future satisfaction and sense of fulfillment.
Those who have a growth mindset believe they will rebound from setbacks and failures. They also believe that regular application of effort, focus, and dedication - along with restoration - is what leads to mastery. Growth mindset individuals believe they can become skilled in any endeavor, no matter what it may be.
Fixed mindset individuals, on the other hand, believe that they were born with certain skills, aptitudes, traits, and intelligence that are set “as is”. They have black and white thinking, “I have it or I don’t”. Generally they do not believe that hard work and effort will make much of a difference in their areas of shortcoming. These underlying beliefs lead many fixed mindset individuals to quit or give up on tasks, projects, or goals when they discover that they are not good at it.
Keep in mind that our measures of fixed-ness and growth-ness fall on a spectrum. We can have a fixed mindset in some areas of life and a growth mindset in others.
The concept of growth mindset is not new. After all, Carol Dweck's book "Mindset" was published in 2007. In my work as a couples therapist most of my clients are very successful in their careers, and would credit much of their success to growth mindset. Yet, when it comes to marriage and relationships, they admit they are not good at it, announcing their fixedness, or that they will never be good in love.
If we take the growth mindset theory and apply it to love and marriage, it becomes clear that all of us can get really good at relationships. It also becomes clear that all of us will have struggles, challenges, and downturns in love.
What if those who are successful in love and marriage are successful because they know that with effort, determination, and grit they can make their current relationship work better and better? Perhaps the ones who find themselves deeply satisfied in relationships simply maintain a belief that they will learn how to be better and do better after each setback.
Could it be that the key to deeply loving the person you are with, and having a relationship that brings joy, great sex, meaningful conversation, adventure, fun, and someone solid to count on for the rest of your life starts with the dedication of both partners to develop a growth mindset in love?
It is quite possible that the whole point of life long partnership is to choose someone who will push you to become better, hold you to a higher standard, question you when you stop being yourself, love you when you don't love yourself, and extend care throughout all if it. Contrast this to the fairy tale ending we have all been sold on, which goes something like, once you meet "the one" all your problems will end and you will live together blissfully for the rest of your life.
Carol Dweck explains love relationship mindset in this way:
“In the fixed mindset, the ideal is instant, perfect, and perpetual compatibility. Like it was meant to be. Like riding off into the sunset. Like, “they lived happily ever after”.
Happily ever after assumes love does not need to be worked at. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I used to have a fixed mindset in love. I will never forget the conversation that changed this.
I was in a new relationship after my divorce. Shortly after deciding to introduce the kids, and to commit exclusively, we started to have troubles. I was working with my coach on my own self-growth and we were spending a fair amount of time exploring my love life. It was humbling for me as I was effective at helping others in their relationships and families, yet my own relationship was struggling. I started to conclude that I was better off alone and my strategy would be to put everything into work and kids and forget about love.
My coach, Pam Dunn, snapped me out of my fixed mindset. She said:
"Your relationship will work when you decide to make it work."
Right. Her words knocked some sense into me. Deep within me I knew I had the capacity to create the kind of love relationship I truly wanted. I stopped complaining and got to work.
Growth mindset couples focus on developing the qualities, within self and the relationship, that are important for the couple to flourish long term. They don't expect the other to change and they don't expect things to magically get better. They work at love just like they work at all of the other parts of their life that they care about.
According to Dweck, “The growth mindset says all of these things can be developed. All – you, your partner, and the relationship – are capable of growth and change”.
Yes riding off into the sunset with a prince or princess may sound dreamy. Yet, knowing that I am the agent of change, influencing the development and outcome of my relationship, is something far more empowering to fall in love with.