Partnering up can help you grow as an individual – here’s the psychology of a self-expanding love relationship
It is common to desire to become a better version of yourself. Just like the desires to eat, drink and avoid harming themselves, human beings also have a basic need to learn, grow and improve – what psychologists call self-expansion.
Consider your favorite activities. Things like reading a book, spending time in nature, volunteering with a new organization, taking a class, traveling, trying a new restaurant, exercising, or watching a documentary all expand the self. . These experiences add new knowledge, skills, perspectives and identities. When who you are as a person develops, you improve your skills and abilities and increase your ability to take on new challenges and achieve new goals.
Of course, you can grow on your own by trying interesting new activities (like playing Wordle), learning new things (like progressing through a language app), or working on a skill (like practicing meditation). Research confirms that these types of activities help individuals developwhich encourages them to try harder for later difficult tasks.
Interestingly, romantic relationships can also be a key source of growth for people. As a relationship scientist for more than 20 years, I have studied the effects that all kinds of romantic relationships can have on you. Today’s modern couples have high expectations for the role of a partner in one’s own personal development.
Grow in your relationship
Falling in love feels good and spending time with a romantic partner is enjoyable, but the benefits of love run even deeper. People tend to value partners who help them become a better version of themselves.
One way to maximize personal growth in your relationship is to share your partner’s unique interests and skills. When “me” becomes “we”, partners mix their self-concepts and include the other in the self. This fusion encourages the partners to adopt each other’s characteristics, quirks, interests, and abilities to some extent. Romantic partners inevitably have different life experiences, knowledge bases, perspectives, and skills. Each area is an opportunity for growth.
For example, if your partner has a better sense of humor than you, over time yours will likely improve. If they have an eye for interior design, your ability to furnish a room will evolve. A partner’s differing opinions on climate change, politics or religion will provide you with new perspectives and a deeper understanding of these topics. Your relationship helps you become a better person.
This does not mean that individuals should try to merge completely, at the risk of getting lost. On the contrary, each person can retain their own identity while augmenting it with desirable elements of their partner.
Relationship consequences of more or less
Science shows very clearly that couples with more self-expansion are better relationships. Specifically, people who report more personal expansion in their relationship also report more passionate love, relationship satisfaction, and commitment. It is also associated with more physical affection, greater sexual desire, less conflict and happier couples in their sex lives.
Because personal expansion is so essential, when relationship expansion ends, participants describe feel like they’ve lost a part of themselves. It is important to note that when less expanding relationships break down, individuals experience positive emotions and grow.
When a relationship offers insufficient expansion, it can feel like it’s stuck in a rut. This stagnant malaise has consequences. Research finds that married couples who at some point indicated more boredom in their current relationship also reported less marital satisfaction nine years later. Insufficient personal expansion of relationships also encourages people to have more of a wandering eye and pay more attention to alternative partners, increases susceptibility to cheating on partner, decreases sexual desire and comes with a higher probability of rupture.
How does your relationship measure up?
Perhaps you are now wondering how your own relationship is doing on this front. To give an overview, I created the Sustainable Marriage Quiz. On a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being “very little” and 7 being “a lot”, answer the following questions:
- How does being with your partner lead you to new experiences?
- When you are with your partner, do you feel more aware of things because of them?
- How does your partner increase your ability to do new things?
- How much does your partner help you expand your perception of the kind of person you are?
- To what extent do you see your partner as a means of extending your own abilities?
- To what extent do your partner’s strengths as a person (skills, abilities, etc.) compensate for some of your own weaknesses as a person?
- How much do you think you get a broader perspective on things from your partner?
- How much has being with your partner helped you learn new things?
- How much has knowing your partner made you a better person?
- To what extent does your partner increase your knowledge?
Before you add up your score, be aware that these categories are generalizations. They suggest where your relationship may need attention, but also where it is already strong. Relationships are complicated, so you should see your score for what it is: a small piece of the puzzle about what makes your relationship work.
- 60 and over – Very expansive. Your relationship offers many new experiences and helps you achieve new goals. As a result, you likely have a more fulfilling and lasting relationship.
- 45 to 60 – Moderately expanding. Your relationship has produced new experiences and additions to your self-concept, but you have room for improvement.
- Below 45 — low dilation. Currently, your relationship does not create many opportunities to increase your knowledge or improve yourself. Therefore, you are probably not improving as much as you could. Consider making an effort to seek out newer and more interesting experiences with your partner. You may even rethink if this is the right partner for you.
What makes a relationship great? While there are many factors to consider, one area deserves more attention: how much it helps you grow. A relationship that fosters self-expansion will make you want to be a better person, help you increase your knowledge, develop your skills, improve your abilities, and broaden your outlook.
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