Reinvention and Relationships, or, Not Everyone Wants You to Change

Reinvention and Relationships, or, Not Everyone Wants You to Change
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I went to speak to a group of people in transition. We talked a lot about the non-transactional side of job search or career change -- the personal, introspective part of the process. One woman in the audience said "The very last thing I expected, when I lost my job last summer, was to go through a huge self-discovery project, but that's what happened. In the end, I changed careers and got divorced, and I feel very much right now like a duckling just out of its shell. I'm excited, scared and elated all at the same time."

There was a murmur and an understanding chuckle that started in one corner of the room and spread through the crowd. A man raised his hand to ask a question. "Can I just do a reality check here, in this room?" he asked. "How many people here have changed their significant relationship during the reinvention process?" Dozens of hands shot up. I was startled -- I'm not going to stay shocked. Who could be surprised? When you get altitude on your life -- and a career change, especially a shake-you-out-of-your-stupor, unexpected and jarring one occasioned by the loss of a long-term job, is a great keyhole to the getting-altitude process -- doesn't it make sense that you'd start to re-evaluate every part of your life, and perhaps come to the conclusion that your primary relationship isn't serving you anymore?

It is terrifying to think that you might lose the security of your traditional career path and the security of your relationship at the same time, but reinvention is a matter of peeling layers off the onion called You. Security is not the same as happiness. Sometimes we begin to grow new muscles in one realm - say, in the professional realm - and the muscle-growing and awareness of our possibilities spreads to other arenas. In particular, we might find that the people closest to us, the ones we most rely on for emotional support and count on to cheer us on, aren't big fans of our reinvention.

Sometimes, they're adamantly opposed to the idea of our reinvention, in fact.

People who are not reinventing themselves and not curious about what this planet holds for them possibility-wise can be barriers to a loved one's personal growth, and it happens all the time. You might say at home, "I'm really thinking about getting a counseling degree and shifting out of policy administration over the next couple of years" only to hear your partner or spouse say "That's a crazy idea, with you just eight years away from retirement." You might feel hurt then, thinking "What about me? What about what I want?"

Many people get to know someone, fall in love with that person, and then expect them to stay the same for life. That's not an unreasonable expectation, because lots of people do stay the same from their teenage years straight through to the ends of their lives. Many of us go into a half-conscious state where our careers are concerned. We think "I've got a job, I'm good." Years later, we're shaken out of the stupor when the job goes away, or we shake ourselves out of it, thinking "There's so much more I could be doing!" That's when we can run into resistance from the people around us, even good friends and family members. Not everyone likes to see people change.

For one thing, when people around us are evolving and growing, we might start to feel bad about our own non-growth. We might become very attached to the idea that the best thing to do is stay the course. Sometimes, one of the hardest parts of personal reinvention is that we also have to (or get to!) shed our friends and romantic partners in the process. That can be painful, even when we realize "This person is in love with an old version of me."

There are people who want to control you, and those people won't want to see your confidence grow. They will work hard to make sure that you believe you are not capable of the lofty goals you're starting to set for yourself. It is tough to say goodbye to people like that, but like the baby-duckling woman, you will find that separating from people who hold you back is part of your reinvention.

You may shed mentors and guides during your reinvention. New people will show up as you shed the old, no-longer-helpful ones. As a young singer in Chicago, I stayed with voice teachers way longer than I should have, even when I hated going to my lessons and knew I wasn't getting anything out of them. I wondered "How can I leave this voice studio when I don't know what's next for me?" That, of course, is the point -- it's the act of leaving that brings in the next, right-for-where-I-am-now teacher.

I have never conducted a study looking at the correlation between personal reinvention and divorce, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is a strong one. Big changes in one area of life send cracks out into the shell of our old identities, and eventually the shell cracks. The baby duckling steps out of its old shell, blinking in the sunlight. I have never talked to a person who shed relationships in reinvention and later said "I regret doing that." More often, they say "I actually should have left that relationship years ago." No one ever said growth was easy, but one question I have found helpful in those situations is "Is this person, the one you're on the fence about, supportive of the person you're working to become?"

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