A friend asked me what positive psychology can tell us about marriage. When I went digging around through my notes and books, one of the things I found was Carol Dweck’s chapter, Relationships: Mindsets in Love (or Not) in her book, Mindsets: The new psychology of success.
Dweck argues that people tend to have either fixed mindsets or growth mindsets about their lives. Someone with a fixed mindset believes his or her qualities are fixed and life is about discovering what already is. You are either smart or you’re not, and failure means you are not. Someone with a growth mindset believes human qualities can be cultivated through effort. Getting something wrong doesn’t mean failure, it means learning. She cites Alfred Binet, who clearly didn’t think IQ was a fixed quantity:
With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment, and literally to become more intelligent than we were before.
So what does this have to do with marriage? Dweck describes two fixed mindset attitudes that get in the way of having a happy marriage:
Fixed Mindset Attitude 1. If you have to work at it, it wasn’t meant to be.
This made me laugh, because I remember people telling me before I got married that you have to work at marriage – and I couldn’t understand what they meant. After nearly 27 years, I know exactly what they mean. It’s a dance of self-expression, observation, and adjustment where the happiness is in that slightly off-balance state of relying on and being surprised by each other. Dweck quotes John Gottman, a foremost relationship researcher:
Every marriage demands an effort to keep it on the right track; there is a constant tension … between the forces that hold you together and those that can tear you apart.
Fixed Mindset Attitude 2. Problems indicate character flaws.
Whoo, what a tarpit that can be! If you believe a problem indicates a fixed character flaw in the other person, then how can you hope for a workable compromise that suits you both?
Mindsets are changeable. People who recognize the limitations of fixed mindsets can learn how to adopt growth mindsets. Marriage is a challenge that thrives on two people both being willing and eager to grow – and to let the other grow.
Check out Nick Hall’s article, Brainset – Neuroscience examines Carol Dweck’s Theory if you want to explore further.