It is customary to do something special with your partner on Valentine’s Day to celebrate your relationship. Have you planned what you are going to do? You can go with the standard commercialized gifts like chocolates, lingerie, or overpriced roses. Or, perhaps you plan on simply spending some time with each other. If you go that route, rather than the trite dinner and a movie, you may want to consider doing something together that will actually make you and your relationship better.
Good relationships are built on mutual feelings of closeness, trust, intimacy, friendship, and affection. These qualities form a stable foundation for relationships, but why not take your relationship up a notch and go from being merely “good” to becoming great? One way to create a great relationship is for partners to help each other grow as individuals. Ultimately, this growth fosters your and your partner’s self-improvement, which will help you enjoy an even more sustainable and satisfying relationship together.
Relationship researchers use the term self-expansion to refer to the idea that relationships can provide opportunities for self-growth.1 According to the self-expansion model, individuals inherently want to improve themselves in ways that make them more capable of completing tasks and achieving their desired goals. Close relationships, especially romantic ones, rank as one of the most central and meaningful parts of life. As a result, your romantic partner inevitably plays a primary role in your pursuit of self-expansion. Although some may consider this focus on what you gain from your relationship a form of selfish “modern love,” the focus on your own benefits fits with individuals’ heightened expectations for their marriages or long-term partnerships. We simply expect our partners to be more enlightening and our relationships to be more fulfilling than…? When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.
However, many relationships get stuck in a rut or otherwise become stagnant, stale, or boring. If your relationship fits this description, it likely lacks sufficient self-expansion, which means you’re not learning or doing new things in the relationship. The consequences of such stagnation are serious: according to a recent study in Psychological Science, those who were more bored with their marriages at one point in time reported less marital satisfaction 9 years later.2 Clearly, boredom isn’t something to ignore. (If you are interested in learning about how much self-expansion you have in your relationship, check out the self-expansion quiz.)
If your relationship isn’t as exciting as it used to be (or as exciting as you want it to be), here are some strategies for improving your relationship that counteract boredom by fostering self-expansion:
1) Bring Back the Spark – The fundamental strategy for maintaining self-expansion in ongoing relationships is to inject novelty and excitement back into the relationship. When relationships are in the early stages, new and exciting experiences are natural and effortless as everything is novel. But over time, it becomes easier to take things for granted and spend less time maintaining a sense of excitement in the relationship. Reflecting on how your relationship started, and savoring those memories, will help you avoid losing sight of some of those early novel and exciting experiences. With your partner, think back to some of your dates from early on in your relationship and go through the photos you’ve saved. What kinds of things did you do for fun? Take some time to reminisce and enjoy those memories and then pick out the top three activities from your relationship’s past. Spend the next few weekends recreating them as closely as possible. They may be even more enjoyable the second time around!
2) Create a Couple Bucket List – Oscar Wilde once said, “One's real life is often the life that one does not lead.” The only solution then is to start leading your real life and avoiding a life of regret. What is it that you’ve always wanted to do, but just haven’t found the time? What’s on your partner’s list? Grab your partner, some pens, some paper, and then each of you take some time to draft your individual “bucket lists.” Have a competitive partner? Challenge your partner to see who can come up with the most activities in 15 minutes. To make things a bit more challenging, focus your list on things you can do within a 100 mile radius from where you live (this also increases the chances that you’ll actually do these things) and on things you can do together. Next, compare notes with your partner and then take turns picking 3 things to do from the other’s list. Over the next few months enjoy crossing things off of your list together!
3) Take a Relationship Road Trip - Plan an excursion that has a little bit for everyone. For example, scout out a nearby town that has something fun that you might both enjoy. Some things you might look for include: a winery, an historical site, a nature trail, a microbrewery, a couples’ massage, or an old bookstore. Chances are that if you find a town that has one or several of these activities, you will also have the opportunity to do some shopping and enjoy local restaurants. If you live somewhere cold, drive somewhere more sunny where a round of golf and a trip to the spa will surely warm up your relationship. During your drive, bring along a set of Trivial Pursuit cards to quiz each other, or fire up the “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader” app on your smartphone. Between you and your partner, those 5th graders don’t stand a chance!
Regardless of whether you use these specific activities or mix and match your favorite parts with some of your own ideas, you should focus on enjoying time with your partner. Sure, these may not sound like your typical Valentine’s Day activities and you can certainly do them any time of year, but what better time to start than an arbitrary date like February 14th?
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1Aron, 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.
2Tsapelas, I., Aron, A., & Orbuch, T. (2009). Marital boredom now predicts less satisfaction 9 years later. Psychological Science, 20(5), 543-545. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02332.x
Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the role of the self in romantic relationships with a specific focus on self-expansion. He has authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences and is a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.