Not too long ago, I was talking with a guy in his mid-20s who was seeing two different people.
The first girl was a couple years younger, and he’d been hanging out with her for the better part of a month. While they’d had a traditional first date, their hangouts had morphed into late-night drinks and sleepovers. While the guy in question liked this girl and thought she was cool, he said seeing her more consistently was sort of an accident. He also didn’t see himself growing in that relationship much.
The second girl was a couple years older, and they’d been out a few times — all in traditional date-like dinner or drinks contexts. They always had a ton to talk about. She was super-smart and put-together and there was just something about her that made him think long-term.
“What was it? Can you put it in words?,” I asked. (I had to know.)
He thought about it and said:
“When I’m around her, I naturally behave more like the person I want to be.”
I would come to find out that this characterizes a frequently-sought-after modern relationship.
Seasoned millennial daters, in search of a great relationship, talk a lot about finding partners who “make them better.” Lots of people confuse the meaning of those words. “That’s insane,” one woman told me. “You need to make yourself better!” Of course, I agree that self-improvement is a personal task — first and foremost. But that’s also not exactly what these daters mean when they see they’re looking for someone who “makes them better,” which is why they don’t tell too many people about this quiet desire.
A guy never lists “makes me better” when he’s asked about his type. A woman won’t say she wants a partner who “makes her better” when she starts reeling off what her dream man looks like. And that makes sense. Because “makes me better” isn’t a quality one has. It’s the symptom of a different kind of relationship.
I hear about two modern relationships more than any other. Neither is bad, per se.
#1: Support-Oriented Relationships
I think of the support-oriented relationship as “a soft place to fall.” Your partner is your plus-one to every function, the person to whom you vent your problems, and there for you during the tough times. It is a good relationship. You could characterize it as comfortable and safe.
#2: Growth-Oriented Relationships
I think of the growth-oriented relationship as “can’t hardly wait.” It often has the elements of a support-oriented relationship… but you also kind of can’t get enough of each other. Your partner inspires you to do more, try more, and reach for more. They seem to naturally… “make you better.” You are such complements, in this inexplicably right way, that having your partner around is the catalyst for positive change in your own life and within the relationship.
I believe that everyone is capable of both kinds of relationships. I believe both relationships can be happy. I also think many millennials, the generation everyone talks so much about — the ones who want to make a difference in the world, who want “fulfilling work” — aspire to growth-oriented long-term relationships.
A lot of young people don’t know exactly what they’re looking for, and can’t really identify it when they start dating. They have lots of support-oriented relationships… but they often feel something is missing.
Some will date, marry, and never know there’s another category of relationship out there. But others will suddenly stumble into a person who propels them into the latter category of relationships. That person shows them what’s actually possible.
Remember the guy who I told you about earlier?
He once met a girl who challenged his paradigms, expanded the way he thought about the world, and encouraged him to chase his dreams in a way no one ever had. She was his first-ever growth-oriented relationship, and she showed him what was possible. And it was brilliant. He now looks for echoes of that growth-oriented dynamic in every girl he meets.
Finding that type of growth-oriented relationship doesn’t mean it always works out. These relationships are both 1) rare, and 2) high-investment. These relationships often consume more of the partners’ time and energy, meaning they’re highly charged. Oftentimes, young people don’t have the relationship skillset to make that first growth-oriented work long-term. It takes a certain kind of self-confidence and self-knowledge to expand with someone.
You need to keep your sense of personal autonomy, even when you’re highly invested in the relationship. Sometimes, based on a person’s life circumstances or the simple need for more relationship experience, a growth-oriented couple breaks up. But while the relationship didn’t last forever, the bar of connection is set. Anything else may feel like settling.
A new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed that the happiest and most fulfilling and relationships were not ones in which men and women could simply “be themselves,” but rather be their ideal selves. This seems to happen naturally, as your partner’s positive behaviors inspire and reveal similar behaviors within yourself. They seem to “make you better,” rather organically — something researchers have called “The Michelangelo Phenomenon.”
If you ever have the feeling there’s another kind of relationship out there, which exists on another plane that you’ve yet to experience, just know that you’re not crazy. It tends to take more energy, more investment, and it’s harder to find (which I’ll keep talking about).
But it is out there.
Jenna Birch is a journalist, who has spent the last several years researching modern dating and relationships. Her first book, The Love Gap, will be published in January 2018. Her Yahoo column will appear every Friday. To ask her a question, which she may answer in an upcoming post, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “YAHOO QUESTION” in the subject line.
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