The Myth of Constant Growth in Relationships

In the How I Met Your Mother episode “The Exploding Meatball Sub,” Barney’s crazy sandwich concoction is far from the only thing to go up in flames.

Ted’s new girlfriend Zoey is both intelligent and pretty. Unfortunately, she’s also the head of the campaign trying to keep Ted’s skyscraper from being built in order to preserve an old building.

“Isn’t it hard for you guys to be on opposite sides of something like this?” his friend Lily, who sees eye to eye on almost everything with her husband and college sweetheart Marshall, asks. “Some of us want a partner who challenges us to grow and evolve,” Ted replies. As it will turn out, that’s baloney.

Over the course of the episode, we see Lily continuously supporting Marshall in his latest endeavors, from quitting his job to volunteering their apartment for an environment fundraiser to starting an unpaid internship. We also see Ted and Zoey getting into each other’s hair over everything, from who hangs up the phone first to what the movie on TV is about to what they like in the bedroom.

En route to pick up a special guest for Marshall’s fundraiser at the airport, Ted and Lily once again broach the subject of support vs. growth. “You guys are in screaming matches all the time,” Lily says. “Uh-uh, growing matches!” Ted tries to defend himself. “Your relationship sounds exhausting,” Lily continues. “Well, maybe yours is a bit lazy,” Ted counters.

Both make some valid points, and despite their different approaches, like Barney’s meatball sub, both are ready to explode. “You know, just because Zoey and I are a different kind of couple than you and Marshall doesn’t make us a worse couple,” Ted goes — and Lily finally shows some compassion. “You’re right. If you and Zoey are happy, then who am I to judge? I’m so sorry.” Ironically, that’s the final straw it takes for Ted, too, to break down: “Oh my God, is that how support feels?” he says. “It’s so warm and wonderful. Oh, Lily, I’ve been so unhappy.”

When she says she thought he likes being challenged, Ted scoffs at Lily. “Nobody likes being challenged! Couldn’t she agree with me just once? Even on something little, like what movie to see or what topping to get on our pizza or… oh, I don’t know, my lifelong dream of building a skyscraper in New York City?!” Meanwhile, Lily admits that supporting Marshall this much is also driving her crazy. So crazy, in fact, that she’s about to hop on a plane to Spain with zero notice, taking a trip for herself that she and Marshall had planned but never followed through on.

In the end, however, like Ted and Marshall’s VIP, Lily arrives at the fundraiser, which turns out to be a smashing success. And just in time to defuse the ticking time bomb that is his wife, Marshall, too, finds the right words: “I want to thank you for being so supportive of me in all this. But now, it’s time for me to find a way to help the Earth and get paid for it. I can’t put that burden entirely on you. So, starting tomorrow, I’ll look for something with a paycheck. What do you think?” And to that, Lily can only offer the same thing she has given so many times before: “Baby, you have my full support.”

As Marshall and Lily put aside their differences yet again, Ted spots Zoey in a corner of the room. “What are you doing here?” he asks. “This is really important to Marshall, so I came to show my support,” she says. Naturally, Ted blows his fuse, and the two start arguing.

Reminiscing many years later, Ted admits: “In that moment, I realized, though I really cared about Zoey, I couldn’t do this for the next 50 years. I had to break up with her.”

As he closes out the episode, old-man Ted arrives at a definitive conclusion:

“Some couples always support each other, and some couples always challenge each other, but is one really better than the other?

Yes. Support is better. Way better.”

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across an interview in which a man and his now-former girlfriend of over seven years explain why they broke up after such a long time together. The main reason? Each of them felt they could no longer “grow” inside their relationship. If they wanted to keep growing as individuals, they had to separate, they concluded, and so they did. That, too, is baloney.

The ex-couple argues that relationships can be amazing personal-growth vehicles but that, sadly, many people squander that potential. They’re not wrong. But if your mantra is “personal growth at all costs,” you’ll never have a relationship that lasts a lifetime. Now, maybe staying together forever was never their goal to begin with, but if it was — and, let’s face it, many, perhaps most people do wish for a partner for life — well in that case, support, comfort, and acceptance are much, much more important than constant personal growth.

Let’s run a thought experiment in the extreme: If you had to live and stay together with a single partner for the reset of your life, who would you rather have by your side at all times? Someone who calls you out on everything you do, from which cereal you pick in the morning to how you do your job to when you brush your teeth at night, or someone who just goes with the flow? Who likes many of the same things you do, and with whom it’s easy to agree on what to eat, which movie to watch at night, and where to go for your next vacation? As soon as you think on a “till death do us part” time frame, the answer becomes obvious.

The truth is, in any relationship, you’ll be forced to do a lot of growing by default. You’ll have to learn to accept your partner’s flaws and quirks. You’ll need to find compromise after compromise where you don’t agree, and you’ll sacrifice plenty of time, energy, and money you would otherwise dedicate elsewhere. At the same time, there’s only so much change we can handle in any given moment while also staying reasonably happy and contented people. Therefore, if you make every problem a “you/I/we are not growing enough” problem, your relationship will turn sour very quickly.

When I look at folks who’ve been mostly happily married for 30, 40, even 60 years like my grandparents, I don’t see people who’ve more or less literally whipped each other into their utmost potential as a human individual. In fact, for many of them, even after decades, some of their most obvious flaws are as prominent as ever — and I think that’s the real magic. To accept someone not only because but also despite who they are, knowing that, like you, they’ll never be perfect. Sure, over time, they’ll grow out of some attitudes and behaviors and into others, but in the end, they, like all of us, will always be a diamond in the rough.

What I see are two happy people who are better off for having spent the majority of their lives together instead of alone. I see acceptance given sometimes freely, sometimes reluctantly, but given nonetheless. I see support of causes they don’t fully understand and never will. And most of all, I see comfort. Comfort being around one another. Comfort being with each other. Comfort that is visible to everyone who encounters them and that extends to every guest in the room — even those who claim they love to be challenged.

Maintaining a multi-decade relationship, be it a romantic one or the kind you long to have with your family and closest friends, requires one thing above all: humility. Sticking with people against the odds is the hardest thing we’ll ever do, and so if we’re to succeed in the long run, we can’t be too picky with our aspirations for both ourselves and those people. Low expectations in trivial matters, admitting we’ll never have all the answers, and taking life one day at a time will go much further than constantly demanding “personal growth” from either side.

The kind of unrelenting, unconditional support Lily shows Marshall may only be a particular, perhaps the ultimate form of said humility, but while, like all things human, it is ultimately finite, it does have two implications.

For one, a great relationship will always offer you the space you need to become a better human being. Rather than seeing each individual’s personal development as something that consumes your connection’s oxygen, it can simply be another playground inside your little bubble. Whether you both flock to it with the same intensity or not, who cares? You don’t have to jump out of every plane, visit every country, or attend every cooking class together. And while, yes, sometimes, your betterment will be very much initiated by the other person, that needn’t be the case for them to be invested in your success, which leads to the second point: offering support instead of criticism, help instead of a challenge, is just a different form of personal growth.

If you can somewhat regularly put aside your own desires in favor of something bigger, helping another person make a change they truly care about, well, whereto else are you aspiring to grow? You’ve already reached the sun, my friend! This is how truly aligned connections turn each other’s goals not just into targets they can pursue inside the safe space of their relationship but into new sources of shared fuel for their journey together. If you’ve ever heard words of praise like Marshall’s — “Thank you for being so supportive of me in all this” — you know that a single sentence can make months-long ordeals worth it in a heartbeat. The appreciation comes, the frustrations wash away, and what felt like a sacrifice mere seconds ago becomes one of your proudest accomplishments.

Crack open a lifelong relationship, and inside you’ll find peace, warmth, and support for your self-induced adventures when you need it the most. Ironically, providing those things in return has little to do with personal growth as we’ve come to define it — and everything with being humble, flexible, and accepting life, people, and your connections to both of them as they are.

For all his “growing matches” with Zoey, in the end, even hopeless romantic Ted had to admit that the secret to long-term relationships isn’t “You make me so much better” — it’s “What we have is good enough.”