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Self-Expansion: A Key for Lasting Love?

Although passionate love typically decreases over time,1 are there things couples can do to keep the flame alive in their relationships? According to the self-expansion model2 (see our articles on self-expansion here), people grow as individuals by having experiences that are new, interesting, and challenging. Luckily for those in relationships, romantic partners are a great source of self-expansion, and relationships help to enhance individuals by providing a place for them to learn about themselves and others, creating opportunities for adventures and trying new things, and promoting active exploration of the world together. If relationships help people enhance themselves, the extent to which a partner facilitates self-expansion should be associated with positive feelings about that relationship, including more love for that partner.

To test this idea, more than 500 people in relationships from a small town in the United States were recruited by telephone.3 Participants ranged from 18 to 92 years old, with a median age of nearly 50 years old. Approximately 75% of the participants were married and the length of their relationships ranged from 1 day to 65 years, with a median relationship duration of nearly 17 years.

The participants rated brief statements about love in their relationships, including attraction and sensual love (sample question: “Your partner and you have the right physical chemistry”) and obsessive and possessive love (“Since being with your partner, you find it hard to focus on the routines of life”). In addition, they answered questions about their self-expansion with their partner (e.g., “Being with your partner expands your sense of who you are” and “Your relationship with your partner is the source of new experiences”).

Generally, self-expansion was lower in longer relationships, which makes sense; over time it’s hard for partners to continuously provide opportunities for personal growth. But those that reported their partners did provide avenues for self-expansion tended to also report more attraction and sensual love, as well as more obsessive and possessive love, than those with less self-expanding partners. In short, having a partner that helps you grow as a person may be an important marker of these forms of love in long-term relationships.

While this study doesn’t conclusively show that self-expansion causes relationship quality, there is strong evidence from other studies4,5 that does support the idea that self-expansion improves relationship quality. In short, engaging in new, interesting and challenging activities with your partner can have a positive impact on your relationship over the long-haul.

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1Acevedo, B. P., & Aron, A. (2009). Does a long-term relationship kill romantic love? Review of General Psychology, 13, 59–65.

2Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1986). Love and the expansion of the self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. New York, NY: Hemisphere Publishing Co/Harper & Row Publishers.

3Sheets, V. L. (2014). Passion for life: Self-expansion and passionate love across the life span. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31, 958–974.

4Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Heyman, R. E., Norman, C. C., & McKenna, C. (2000). Couple’s shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273–284.

5Reissman, C., Aron, A., & Bergen, M. R. (1993). Shared activities and marital satisfaction: Causal direction and self-expansion versus boredom. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 243–254. 

Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV

Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships. 

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