Why Mindset Matters in Relationships
And how you can become a better partner
Since Carol Dweck’s book Mindset was published in 2006, the world has witnessed an upslope of studies, articles, and talks about the virtues of shifting one’s mindset to achieve greater things. This was especially loud in the world of school and business — where the potential benefits were viscerally felt and seen the most. Bloggers started writing about embracing failure and thriving on challenges, and speakers started preaching about the benefits of prioritising internal metrics over external metrics for more sustainable growth.
Teachers and parents started to see the advantages of rewarding effort and action instead of intelligence, encouraging small but consistent improvements, and cultivating grit along the way. Some educational institutes have even decided to change Fails in report cards to Not Yets, which implies the presence of a learning curve to the attainment of success.
The book was a massive hit. People started singing to Dweck’s gospel. They became disciples of mindset. People began to realise that sometimes, a shift in mindset is all it takes to start a journey — be it an academic endeavour or a launching a first business.
As I dived deeper into the matter, however, something became clear. The benefits of growth mindset stretch far beyond what is classically portrayed in article columns and motivational speeches, and transcends the landscape of education and careers. The fundamental laws of mindset are adaptable to virtually all other aspects of life. One area that we most commonly overlook is relationships, which some people think holds implications that are far more profound.
Writer Maria Popova happens to be one of those people. In her critical appraisal of Dweck’s collection of work and ideas, she noticed that people with a fixed mindset had a firm disposition towards believing that their ideal partners would put them on a throne to make them feel perfect and flawless.
Those trained to view life through the lens of the growth mindset, however, preferred partners who are willing to point out flaws and lovingly help them improve. They were drawn into people who would encourage them to learn new things and become a better person. In turns out, the fixed mindset is the root cause of many of our most toxic cultural myths about “true love.”
Through the words of Dweck herself: “The growth mindset says all of these things can be developed. All — you, your partner, and the relationship — are capable of growth and change.”
If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because the principles are almost exactly the same as they are in the realm of business and education. Just like in marketing and math, practice and grit can help people excel in relationships and become better partners.
“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’.” adds Dweck.
Those with the fixed mindset felt threatened and hostile after talking about even minor discrepancies in how they and their partner saw their relationship. Even a minor discrepancy threatened their belief that they shared all of each other’s views.
One problematic tendency in people with the fixed mindset is that they expect everything good to happen naturally and automatically. Rather than basing the foundations of their relationship on teamwork to help each other solve their problems and gain skills, they are impelled to think that this will occur magically through their love. Pop culture does a fantastic job and painting this picture to people, daubing them with Hollywood bluffers and unrealistic ideals.
It’s portrayed in the story of Sleeping beauty, whose coma was cured by her prince’s kiss, and Cinderella, whose miserable life was suddenly transformed by a similar figure. This fictitious narrative can also dangerously lead to the false belief of mind-reading in couples, where the fixed mindset believes that an ideal couple should be able to read each other’s minds and finish each other’s sentences. While it’s truly enjoyable to witness, it can build into false expectations, which helps tighten the grasp of the fixed mindset.
And hey, I’m not pointing fingers at pop culture, that would be a very fixed mindset thing to do. Instead, I’m encouraging us to be more mindful on the things we do consume and even then, filter out parts of the fable that’s best left at that.
But perhaps the most destructive impact of the fixed mindset in a relationship is the mythical belief that if it requires work and effort, something is terribly wrong and that any discrepancy of opinions or preferences is suggestive of flaws on behalf of one’s partner.
“Just as there are no great achievements without setbacks, there are no great relationships without conflicts and problems along the way”, writes Dweck in Mindset. “When people with a fixed mindset talk about their conflicts, they assign blame. Sometimes they blame themselves, but often they blame their partner. And they assign blame to a trait — a character flaw.”
But Dweck notices that it doesn’t end there. When the fixed mindset folk blames their partner’s personality for the problem, they feel entitled to anger and disgust towards them — simply because it’s part of their nature to believe that a person’s traits are fixed and set in stone. And since these traits are anchored, they’re unfixable. It forms a never-ending loop, fuelling such relationships with resentment and misery.
Those with the growth mindset, on the other hand, are able to acknowledge their partners’ imperfections without assigning blame and still feel that they have a fulfilling relationship. They see disputes as an issue of communication, and do not drag elements of personality or character into the frame. This dynamic holds true as much in romantic partnerships as in friendship and even in people’s relationships with their parents and children.
That’s how they are able to cope so well with differences in relationships. They discover flaws and sometimes struggle along the way, but together they learn how to deal with differences and find mutual solutions, allowing both partners to grow and the relationship to deepen. In this healthy relationship dynamic, an atmosphere of trust is developed, and they become vitally interested in each other’s development.
Our mindsets are constantly evolving. The person we are today is an amalgam of the residual imprints of our upbringing, the inner child in us, and the rational-thinking adult we’ve cultivated along the way. To attempt to alter our mindsets means to challenge our preformed biases and to slowly break its chains. It will be painful, arduous, and time-consuming. But that’s exactly what the growth mindset teaches us.
The perfect partner is an asymptote — it doesn’t exist. And so the goal isn’t to become perfect, it is to strive for constant improvements. To become a better partner. To understand better, To communicate more attentively, and to grow together in the name of love.