Can A Relationship Work if One Partner is Growing and The Other Isn’t?

Can a relationship really last if one partner is growing and the other isn’t?

I see this a lot in my office.

One person, for whatever reason, finds themselves in my office wanting a different life or they really want to deepen their intimate relationship. They have chosen to work on themselves because they believe it might help them in their life.

This is a bold moment in a person’s life, perhaps one of the most inspiring for me to witness.

Their partner chose not to come in and are at home or work, not on the same page, nor are they interested in getting help, support or guidance on their relationship or anything else.

At some point in our conversation, this comes up.

Sue’s Story

For example. I had a client we’ll call Sue.

Sue wants her life to be different. She wants to feel closer to her partner and wants to deepen her sex life with him. So, after years and years of avoiding herself, she finally comes in for help.

Turns out her marriage is pretty cold and dead. She and her husband have two kids and haven’t had sex in years. They have different wants and needs and are missing each other like strangers in the night.

However, he won’t come in, nor will he do any work on himself.

Innocently enough she tries to change her partner only to be met with more resistance.  Hmmm.

Sue feels sad, angry, alone, rejected, and abandoned in her marriage. The husband apparently feels like things were fine before she started to get curious and wanted change.

Clearly change is threatening the husband and the more Sue pushes, the more he digs his heels in.

So, the question is, will this relationship work?

As my client so brilliantly put it, “it’s like we are going on a walk and he is just sitting there, refusing to move, and I’m eager to get going to a new destination together.” She added that if he doesn’t come with her, they’ll be going in circles and Sue is no longer willing or able to do that. She is eager to find out what’s up ahead.

Can a relationship work long term where one partner simply won’t walk?

I posted this question on facebook and one person said on the subject:

“I just ended a ten year version of this. We both started out on a personal consciousness path, and I ended up staying on it. For the last 4-5 years, I continued on my path, but it felt like an uphill struggle to be so deeply attached to someone who wasn’t. It took me five years to understand how deeply unhealthy this was for me. It felt so heavy, pulling someone else along that wasn’t doing the legwork–even though they claimed to be. (I think he was, just on a much much smaller scale, and with much much less time and energy dedicated to it.) It is a very sad thing. i think this *could* work, but my question is…is it possible for it to be *healthy*..? I think the answer just may be “no.” it creates all kinds of codependency.”

Should Sue leave her partner? Can they have a livable marriage if he stays on the sidewalk unwilling to budge, while she abandons her longing for more?

If it’s true we can’t really change our partner, what can Sue do?

I’d love to hear your responses. I’m sure Sue would as well.

Here’s my quick take:

Move on.

If one person won’t change for whatever reason and won’t come in with the other partner for help, and we really accept them as they are, the work is about helping Sue stay true to herself no matter the cost.

If kids are involved, do you really want to stay in a dead marriage “for the kids?” (future post coming…) as if you know what’s best for them? (Her kids are both under 6 years old).

Your thoughts?

Related post: The Trap of Asking Your Partner To Change.


  • Chris

    Reply Reply March 10, 2013

    I have no ready answer, but find myself stuck in this very place.
    Ours is a bit muddy. My wife says that she is “Doing her work” She has become deeply involved in Yoga, and it’s true that she is changing, growing even. But all the work she is doing is on her self, by herself.
    We have been in couples counseling for over a year, but it was a huge chore to get her to come. She wasn’t willing to contribute to it financially, but insisted we see the therapist she chose. She’s walked out multiple times. Suggested quitting multiple times, and just recently has quit completely. She has told me that the problems we have are my problems, and that I need to work on them myself. She sees that fact that I have been working with my own counselor as proof that she is right about this. Whenever I ask her for more; in any form, she lashes out and punishes me by withholding… It’s a poisonous dance, and our precious daughter, who doesn’t realize she is caught in the middle, is only 3.

    I don’t need to bore the world with the details, but I surely feel the pain of anyone in this place. I am grateful for your post; I just discovered your blog a few days ago. After having Deida thrown in my face in fact (Which I had read months before she did) I came across your blog about The Straightjacket of Deida. (Brilliant!)

    Thank you for this; and I can’t wait for your future posts.

  • John Brier

    Reply Reply March 14, 2013


    “Whenever I ask her for more; in any form, she lashes out and punishes me by withholding… It’s a poisonous dance”

    Is an example of a “special relationship.” Where special relationships are constant bargaining games between two people who give to get. It feels poisonous because it is not real love. Real love is unconditional. Give love without expecting anything in return. You have a great opportunity to practice forgiveness (which is an extension of love) when she walks out of therapy sessions, forgive it.

    When you say “all the work she is doing is on her self, by herself.” It makes me think you might be projecting your own judgements of yourself onto her. Clearly doing work *together* is important to *you*, but maybe you wish you worked with her more than you work on yourself? If not that then there is probably another “turn around” you can do on that statement about your wife I quoted above.

    I learned about special relationships from “Take Me to Truth,” which is on amazon here:

    That book also taught me about projecting and judging and mentioned the “turn around” as a technique to identify them (in addition to bringing peace to any situation you might otherwise find difficult). The “turn around” is from Byron Katie and she provides a worksheet for free that you can use to do the turn around.

    • Paul

      Reply Reply March 17, 2013

      “Give love without expecting anything in return.”

      John, I thought your reply was to Chris was wise and appropriate and I can certainly understand his frustration. Does there ever become a time that we give and give and eventually just end up being a pathetic tool?


  • Kate

    Reply Reply April 6, 2013

    To answer Paul — I think, yes, you can become a pathetic tool at some point (probably after YEARS, not months or weeks). You cripple yourself eventually when you have no regard for yourself or your own journey.

    And while I definitely do agree that forgiveness and real love (in the form of action/behavior/choice) are important, I find it really frustrating when someone who doesn’t know the particular details of your situation implies that you’re being selfish and just need to “try harder” or “relax into discomfort” and “stay with the relationship” when you’ve been doing all of that for a lot longer than they realize (I know I’m supposed to be all zen and above those types of comments).

    I’ve used a metaphor similar to Sue’s for my own marriage — I get that marriage is a marathon, I just want my partner to be mostly running next to me (I know sometimes he’ll be running ahead of or behind me and that he may need to lean on me for support for long stretches). I don’t want to feel like I’m running uphill, pulling him behind me in a wagon.

    Like Chris and Sue, I am just exhausted. As Jayson says in his post, if we want to honor who our partners are and where they are in their own journeys AND honor ourselves and keep moving forward on our journeys, sometimes that requires us to leave a relationship in which we have continually tried and failed to do both of the above simultaneously.

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