Are You in a Shrink to Fit Relationship?
I’ve been in a shrink to fit relationship plenty of times. You probably have been, too, because I’m guessing you have a sense of what “shrink to fit” means, even without a definition (but we’ll get to that…)
Though the experience can’t be described as fun, we could probably agree that an encounter with “shrink to fit” offers one heck of a learning curve. In the end, it provides clarity right where we need it.
Simply speaking, shrink to fit means that certain aspects of us fit into a relationship with someone else just fine. And those aspects that fit, the ones that are fun and/or useful, allow us to ignore or downplay the parts of us that don’t fit. Enough good stuff with our partner permits us to brush aside the parts of our personality or spirit that aren’t truly welcomed by the other person.
This is a pattern of behavior where one person suppresses or diminishes their own needs, desires, or personal boundaries in order to get along with the other person.
This person accommodates and conforms to the expectations or demands of their partner. They keep certain conversations on simmer, especially those that would become heated if allowed to surface. Essentially, someone is metaphorically making themselves smaller or shrinking in order to align with the preferences or characteristics of their partner.
To understand how shrink to fit relationships get moving and gain momentum, let’s talk about how most relationships work.
Where Most Relationships Live
The smooth functioning of most intimate relationships depends on what’s shared and agreed upon. As long as there’s agreement, there’s love.
There’s an obvious problem with connecting love with agreement: the moment there is disagreement, love fades. It takes a back seat. Love goes to the back of the bus.
Since disagreement is sure to happen in every relationship, partners can find themselves in the cycle of agree-disagree and therefore love-not love. Love comes and goes. Hesitancy steps in, in place of authenticity.
If love is sent to the back of the bus because of a disagreement, then what moves up front? Most likely frustration, anger, or criticism. Even contempt.
To stay together, partners must beckon love back to the driver’s seat by coming to some sort of agreement.
And this, my friends, is how shrink to fit is born.
To get together or stay together, we compromise. We become just a little bit less. We make an agreement to accommodate someone else at the expense of ourselves, which keeps the form of the relationship intact, but not the true connection.
Compromise causes at least one partner to become disheartened. And the truth is, if an agreement doesn’t work for one partner (it doesn’t light them up with enthusiasm), then it doesn’t work for either person.
Is There Another Way?
What can lift us out of the swirl of agree-disagree?
What can release us from the hesitancy to speak our truth and be ourselves?
What can give us hope in the face of fading, disappointing love?
What about the influence of imagination? Imagination is a unique playing field—one with no boundaries. It can feel a little scary or take our breath away to think freely in a place where we’re unaccustomed to do so, because it directly challenges the value of agreement, comfort, sameness, and our ideas about safety. Inventiveness is always asking probing questions. Creativity naturally pushes the envelope.
Imagination challenges what’s currently known and understood. Thinking, when unleashed, questions common knowledge or what is universally accepted. To a pioneer, dangling one’s feet over the edge of the cliff is perfectly natural and necessary. To a person steeped in the importance of comfort and safety, dangling one’s feet seems terrifying.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
In relationships, we take advantage of imagination only if we don’t point to our partner, call them the problem, and ask them to change.
Instead, we realize that we are not the problem, and our partner is not the problem. The problem is the problem.
To take advantage of the power of imagination, we grab hands with our partner, stand together, and use individual and shared creativity to find a solution for that problem over there. The solution must be so good that it feels like we both won the lottery. The solution must be win-win. To expand our understanding and expression of love, there’s no compromise, no shrink to fit.
What’s the Opportunity?
Is it always a disadvantage to linger in a relationship that’s not roomy enough for you?
- SLOW DOWN: Staying in a shrink to fit is a chance to avoid facing our fears head-on. If you’re not ready to face your fears, wait. It’s okay. Take your time. You have as many years as you need. Maybe (by staying) you’ve concluded that you’re being lazy or cowardly. Maybe it’s true. Then again, you might try removing the evaluation and let yourself learn. Are you taking your time for good reason? Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Slow down and see the reason.
- STUDY YOURSELF: If you continue a relationship past its expiration date, use the time to study yourself, not your partner. For example, maybe I think of myself as a kind person, but am I really? Let me look at that. A personal example is that after my 4th marriage fell down around my knees, I realized my default actions and habits were not kind (to either of us) and needed revision. I had some work to do to find my true-self, the higher self I preferred to express every day. Again, study your actions and reactions, not the other person’s. The tendency toward the end of a relationship is to collect a basket of reasons why the other person is inadequate, and then when you finally leave, your exit is justified and everyone cheers you on for leaving that awful, terrible person. Don’t fall for this. Don’t criticize one single thing about your partner as you step away. This takes awareness and discipline, something you wanted to develop in yourself anyway, right?
- CUT OUT THE LABELS AND NAME-CALLING: Stop the name-calling. Forget about labels. This applies to everyone, including therapists and people who see a therapist. Don’t report to others that your partner is a narcissist. Don’t declare that you left the relationship because your mate was toxic. Name-calling and labeling is a way to spin the story in favor of one person, which is usually you. It promotes the point of view that the other person is inferior and you’re superior. It also offloads responsibility for an outcome onto the other person. Remember, there are two sides to every story. Because I speak with individuals and couples every day about their relationships, I know this for sure.
- LOOK IN THE MIRROR: Instead of deciding why the other person is wrong for being “smaller” than you, or that they are somehow mistaken for not being big enough to see, understand, and accept all of you, maybe it’s you who doesn’t see, understand, or accept all of you. Turn all of your attention to the risk of opening to who you are and expressing that. There’s your work. And trust me, it’s big, good, deep work.
- FIND AND EXPRESS GRATITUDE: Even if your connection to your partner caused jarring, shocking, or unexpected upheaval, actively identify the opportunities this partner provided for you. Developing gratitude for a difficult situation may take time. But in the grand scheme of things, who picked this partner? You did. To give yourself the benefit of the doubt ask some version of this query, “Why would someone as wise as me do this? What am I learning here?” There’s a great education to be had from what did or didn’t happen and the choices you made.
To be sure, the “shrink to fit” dynamic occurs in intimate relationships, but it presents itself in other contexts as well. Here are a few examples:
- Friendships: In friendships, individuals sometimes feel compelled to downplay their preferences, interests, or personalities to fit in. On a group night out, for instance, a person might totally give way to others’ preferences about where to eat or what movie to see and end up disheartened. They are disappointed about the evening, but say little, and might even do it again when the situation comes up. The lesson will keep presenting itself until it’s learned.
- Family Relationships: In some family dynamics, children feel pressure to go to college or become a doctor or lawyer rather than honor their own aspirations, talents, or values. They decide not to put up a fight, and find they’ve traded their own desires or authenticity for years of stress and misery.
- Work Environments: In professional settings, we might “shrink to fit” by downplaying our knowledge, skills, or problem-solving abilities in order to avoid appearing too ambitious or threatening to others. This hinders a whole lot of things, including personal growth, career advancement, and overall job satisfaction.
- Social Settings: Think back on your life. Did you alter your behavior or beliefs to gain acceptance or avoid rejection? When did you engage in activities you didn’t enjoy, and how long did you do it? Did you ever withhold true opinions to conform to the dominant views of a group?
Why do we consent to coloring inside the lines? To staying or playing small? To not becoming our true-self?
Because of fear.
More about dealing with fear in a future post…