In the car this past Sunday, road-tripping back from a wedding a half-day’s drive from home, my fiancé and I did what anyone who’s spent the past couple days basking in the secondhand glow of newlywed love would do: We turned on an episode of the social science podcast Hidden Brain with the title, “When Did Marriage Get So Hard?”
And actually, it was kind of the perfect way to cap off the weekend’s festivities — not as a palate cleanser to 48 hours of being around romance, but as a sort of final note on the experience. In an interview with Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam, Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel, author of The All-Or-Nothing Marriage, delivered some of the best relationship advice I’ve ever heard. Three days later, I’m still thinking about it.
His advice had to do with something called “mindset theory,” an area of research developed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. The gist is that people tend to approach life one of two ways: those with a “fixed mindset” believe that a person’s abilities and traits remain more or less unchanged over the course of a lifetime, while those with a “growth mindset” believe that those things can develop over time.
And according to Finkel, the same concept can be applied to how people think about their relationships. “There’s a lot of good research now on the extent to which people feel that compatibility in a relationship is something that’s fixed,” he said. “You could call this a destiny mindset, people who think partners are either compatible or not and that’s the end of the story, versus more of a growth mindset, [people] who think, look, there’s a lot of room where you can develop compatibility.”
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck dove into the problems with this “destiny mindset” in a section on how her body of work applied to romantic partnerships: “In the fixed mindset, the ideal is instant, perfect, and perpetual compatibility. Like it was meant to be,” she wrote. “It’s not that the partners will work to help each other solve their problems or gain skills. It’s that this will magically occur through their love.” It’s the idea that everyone has one soulmate, and each relationship is another round of trial and error until you hit on the right answer — the problem being that when conflict arises, as conflict is wont to do, it can seem less like an inevitability and more like a sign that you’ve gotten it wrong. everything is perfect, up until it’s not — and when it’s not, it’s a sign that it never really worked to begin with.
But as Finkel explained, people with a growth mindset about their relationships don’t see conflict as a sign of incompatibility; instead, they see it as an area of, well, growth. “Going through difficulties in a relationship isn’t a signal that, oh my goodness, we’re incompatible people,” he told Vedantam. “It’s an opportunity to learn, to understand each other better and strengthen the relationship through the resolution of the conflict.”
As someone who is mildly terrified of any sort of confrontation, I loved this, the idea of fights as opportunities. Yes, I know that no couple gets along all the time, disagreements are healthy, yadda yadda. In practice, though, it’s hard sometimes to put that knowledge to use — even with the people you’re closest to — when doing so feels a lot like admitting to some failure in what you’ve built together.
Finkel’s advice takes the pressure off: In the growth mindset, fighting isn’t just a necessary evil. It’s not something to recover from; it’s something that actually makes you better, that actively pushes you forward. For the conflict-averse among us, the whole thing sounds much more approachable — necessary, even — when it’s framed in those terms. Which came in handy just a few minutes later, when the episode ended and my fiancé announced that he’d polished off the last of our road snacks.