Self-Expansion in Partnerships

I came across this article The Happy Marriage Is the ‘Me’ Marriage by Tara Parker-Pope in the NY Times, based on research by Dr. Aron and Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. about the effect of experiencing self-expansion in one’s partnership. The researchers claim that this quality leads to more commitment and satisfaction in marriages. Individuals are more content when they have partners that contribute to their own grown and development by helping them cultivate new knowledge and have new experiences. When self-expansion is high the relationship appears to be more sustainable, as well as more pleasurable.

This notion of self-expansion and honoring individuality in partnership resonates with my philosophy and my practice as a psychologist. The article points out that often marriage is seen as requiring total compromise or a giving up of one’s individual needs or desires for the greater good of the collective. Rather than shy away from self-interest in relationships, however, it makes a lot of sense to actively seek a partner who will broaden our experience, add to growth and expansion, and allow us to do the same for them.  Several of the tools I’ve developed for clients over the years work to help individuals consciously choose a partnership promoting the values, ideals and skills necessary for this kind of coupling.

As an example, the intention behind my Things to Know Before You Say “Go” card deck and The Questions app follows exactly along these lines. These tools were designed to help individuals look at their relationships to assess whether their partnership will provide the level of positive enhancement they desire, which the research Ms. Parker-Pope writes about is showing to be effective for longterm sustainability and enjoyment of marriage or partnerships. The deck (and companion iPhone app) is full of questions to help people make an assessment of potential satisfaction for a relationship, ideally prior to making a commitment. Many of the questions in the Things to Know Before You Say “Go” deck and The Questions app point directly to self-expansive qualities to consider. Here are some examples:

  • Is this person supportive of my work or career path?
  • Is this person playful and fun to be with?
  • Does this person attend to what brings me pleasure?
  • Is this person able and willing to listen to my feelings and desires?

There are follow up questions to each of the sample inquiries above, that help to add insight or seek answers at a deeper level, and they are all designed to help assess both the hopes and the realities of the relationship being considered.  Without reservation, I encourage people to be picky in partnership selection. To identify what will enhance their own life and look for it in potential partners. And to appreciate the aspects of partners that do broaden their own horizons, allow for learning, growth, development, and that help expand the capacity for a rich and connected life. The research suggests this will lead to a more meaningful, enjoyable and sustainable relationship.