We all want to have better, more passionate relationships. Luckily, psychology is here to help! Psychology has a reputation for focusing on "fixing" problems like mental illness, couples’ disputes, and problem behaviours. However, the absence of these issues does not always mean the presence of positive ones. There is something in the middle, a “neutral” zone. As humans, however, many of us want to live in the “happy” zone of our career, relationships, and life in general. We want to be better than neutral, and want to know how to get there. Recently, psychologists have caught onto this desire, and have begun to explore questions in the realm of “positive psychology”1, the study of behaviours and states of mind that contribute to happiness and well-being.
Based on principles of positive psychology, researchers have started to investigate how individuals can maximize their happiness and satisfaction within relationships. One important theory in this area is the self-expansion model2,3. The self-expansion model suggests that because we humans have a natural desire to learn and experience new things in order to better ourselves, we seek out experiences that will help us grow in some way. This growth could be intellectual, financial, spiritual, or physical and motivates us to do things like meet new people, move to a new city, or take a Lebanese cooking class.
But what does this mean in the context of a romantic relationship? Even when we are in a relationship, we still want to self-expand. At the beginning of a relationship, this is easy. As we spend time with our partners, we learn more and more about them and begin to integrate their characteristics into our perceptions of ourselves, hence self-expanding4. This intense self-expansion is related to feelings of passionate love and feelings of “falling in love”. However, this intense self-expansion doesn’t last forever, since eventually there will be less and less to lean about our partner and we will therefore self-expand less and less. This is when, researchers say, passionate love transitions into “companionate love”, where there is a high level of intimacy and commitment, but less excitement and passion5.
I’m all for commitment and stability, but does the passion and self-expansion really have to die? Some researchers have looked into this and found that there is a way to keep the passion alive. In a telephone survey asking couples about the levels of passionate love they felt for their partners and the extent to which they were self-expanding within the relationship (i.e., having new experiences with their partner, continuing to learn new things about their partner)4. The researchers found that couples who engaged in more new (i.e., self-expanding) activities with their partner and were continuing to learn about their partner were more passionate in their relationships and felt more “in love” with their partners.
Of course, it is also possible to engage in self-expanding activities alone and experience many of these same benefits. So, if you have very different interests from your partner, or live far apart (i.e., you’re in a long-distance relationship), never fear. Researchers have found that if your partner simply supports you in engaging in the self-expanding activities that are important to you, it contributes to your well-being6. Oh, and don’t save all the self-expanding for yourself - you can support and encourage your partner in pursuing these types of activities in order to increase their happiness and passion, too!
Now, I’d like to end on a happy note and send you on your way to do some self-expanding with or without your partner, but sadly, there is a potential dark side to self-expansion. Specifically, some research has found that people’s need for self-expansion is related to a greater likelihood of infidelity. That is, men and women who want more self-expansion opportunities are more likely to cheat7. This is likely because these people are more likely to look for excitement and new experiences, which can take the form of seeking out and engaging in a relationship outside of one’s primary relationship. Of course, if you feed your appetite to self-expand with more positive pursuits, you can avoid this potential pitfall and increase your relationship satisfaction while you’re at it! Go forth and self-expand!
1 Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. Merican Psychologist, 55, 5-14.
2 Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1997). Self-expansion motivation and including other in the self. In S. Duck (Ed.), Handbook of personal relationships: Theory, research, and interventions (2nd ed., pp. 251-270). London: John Wiley & Sons.
3 Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1986). Love and the expansion of the self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. New York, NY: Hemisphere Publishing Corp/Harper & Row Publishers.
4 Sheets, V. L. (2014). Passion for life: Self-expansion and passionate love across the life span. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31, 958-974.
5 Sternberg, R. J. (2007). “Triangulating love”. In Oord, T. J. The altruism reader: Selections from writing on love, religion, and science. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation
6 Fivecoat, H. C., Tomlinson, J. M., Aron, A., & Caprariello, P. A. (2014). Partner support for individual self-expansion opportunities: Effects on relationship satisfaction in long-term couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 368-385.
7 Lewandowski, G. W. & Ackerman, R. A. (2006). Something’s missing: Need fulfillment and self-expansion as predictors of susceptibility to infidelity. The Journal of Social Psychology, 146(4), 389-403.