Self-Expansion in Romantic Relationships

Engaging life experiences aren't just fun, they're valuable for your bond.

Posted Apr 13, 2019

View Apart/Shutterstock
Source: View Apart/Shutterstock

The familiar can be so gratifying. Routines, rituals, and the spaces we frequent tend to keep us nestled in comfort. Oft-visited restaurants, beloved pastimes, and everyday habits stand with us as longtime friends. Not only that, they’re a known quantity when it comes to pleasing our partner. Wondering where to take your beloved to dinner or which meal to cook together at home?  Previous experience with the restaurants and meals you’ve relished is a superb guide. Curious about where to go on vacation? Memories of engaging trips you’ve taken together will help. Looking for a date night idea? It’s natural to reflect on what you’ve done before to gauge what you’ll both delight in this time. And why not look to the past? It’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll have a great time. Isn’t that the whole point?

Yet, there’s also a friend in the uncommon and the unknown, something that takes us outside our comfy stomping grounds and stretches us just a little, guiding us along to see new facets of ourselves and discover fresh elements of the human experience. A trip into such uncharted territory is known as self-expansion. When we self-expand, we’re essentially widening our understanding of who we are, what we’re able to do, and how we view life. For example, a good friend of mine is about to run the Boston Marathon for a worthy cause. It’s the first time she’s ever run a marathon. And when she finished the main part her training and started tapering in preparation for the big day, she mentioned that she was feeling like a runner now. By taking on this new endeavor and doing the necessary training, she’s added “runner” to her personal image. In other words, she’s expanded herself.

But we don’t all have to take on marathon-level challenges to self-expand. Other examples of self-expansion include learning a language, taking a class, dipping your toe into a new hobby, tasting a different type of dish, or enjoying an engaging discussion. Sure, this runs the risk you won’t like it, but psychological research suggests it’s worth the gamble for your bond with your partner. 

Self-Expansion and Your Romantic Relationship

Research points to several meaningful links between self-expansion and relationship wellness.  People who expand their image of themselves are happier with their partners, they’re more dedicated to the relationship, and they’re less apt to separate. They’re also less inclined to stray and be unfaithful. Moreover, self-expansion is associated with partners feeling greater sexual longing for each other, having sex, and relishing the experience more. And that’s in addition to the new knowledge, skills, experiences, and enhanced perspectives people get from self-expanding and embracing what’s unique and intriguing in life.

Now you might be thinking something along the lines of, "Wait a second, I’ve got stuff to do. I don’t have time to learn Spanish, start rolling sushi, take up the waltz, try crêpes, or debate my partner on who really deserves the Iron Throne!” That’s more than understandable. Life gets busy, and it can be tricky to carve out time when a bevy of other distractions, people, and roles are already competing for your time and energy.

Thankfully, you don’t have to invest a significant chunk of time. When researchers in one study directed couples to take part in stimulating, interesting pursuits together for just 90 minutes per week, partners felt more upbeat in general, and more content and enthusiastic in their relationship a month later. You also don’t need to do stress yourself out with anything that’s too arduous or complicated. Evidence points to couples gaining a mood and relationship boost when their self-expanding efforts are at an average level of difficulty, not too simple but not too demanding for them either.  What's more, you have flexibility with how you choose to self-expand. You can do it on your own (e.g., taking up a new hobby, making friends in a new reading group), with your partner (e.g., learning a new sport or taking a class together), or both. And you and your partner don’t have to pursue something that is equally new to both of you. People come to the relationship table with different life histories and backgrounds, knowledge, and interests, and they can self-expand when they teach each other and let each other in on their respective worlds. Are you an ardent surfer but your partner has never touched a board? If you teach your partner to surf, you probably won’t be broadening your image of yourself. But your partner will be doing a whole lot of self-expanding, and research suggests that witnessing their self-expansion is linked to a lift in your happiness with them.

So to sum it all up, it’s possible to weave self-expansion into a bustling life on your own terms, even when it may seem like there isn’t much wiggle room.

Avenues for Self-Expansion

So how can you build more self-expansion into your life?  Here are a few ideas:

  1. Remember, anything that feels new and engaging offers you a chance to self-expand, so you’ve got plenty of options. Try brainstorming and making a list of experiences you could try on your own and with your partner.
  2. Google information on activities in nearby towns or cities, including your own, and look for attractions you’ve never tried or seen before that catch your interest. For example, Boston has a great calendar of assorted happenings.
  3. Look up a list of classes that are being offered locally, including ones offered at adult education centers, and see which ones stand out to you.
  4. Is there anything you’ve felt curious to try but haven’t because you assumed you wouldn’t be any good at it or weren’t sure you’d enjoy yourself? Consider looking up opportunities for beginner classes, ideally ones that allow you to sample the experience without committing yourself. For instance, a close friend of mine recently recounted how she took a painting class that focused on helping students paint one particular painting. She’s never painted in her life and found that it felt good to know she could learn something new. I also discovered something new about my friend, as it turns out she’s able to paint quite well.
  5. Ask your partner if there’s anything they’ve always wanted to try, see, or learn, and then find opportunities to make it happen together.
  6. Does your partner have knowledge or skill in a particular topic, hobby, or sport, or language? If so, consider asking them if they’d give you an introduction.
  7. Make a list of intriguing discussion topics that you and your partner could explore or have a friendly debate on, and enjoy the process of delving into interesting ideas together and kindly challenging each other.
  8. Try expanding your friendship circle by looking up social groups in your area. A great step in this direction might be searching for groups on Meetup.com or attending local community events.
  9. Venture to restaurants that serve types of foods you’ve never tried before.
  10. Expand your knowledge base by acquiring information on an engaging topic you know nothing about. Try checking out books, articles, podcasts, and videos on the subject.
  11. Shake up your usual vacation routine by traveling to a place you’ve never been to before.
  12. Most of all, remember to have fun. The journey of self-expansion isn’t intended to be a chore, but rather a rich open door for you and your partner to learn more about yourselves and each other, and to grow and flourish in the process.

References

Coulter, K., & Malouff, J.M. (2013). Effects of an intervention designed to enhance romantic relationship excitement: A randomized-control trial. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 2, 34-44. 

Graham, J.M., & Harf, M.R. (2015). Self-expansion and flow: The roles of challenge, skill, affect, and activation. Personal Relationships, 22, 45-64. 

Mattingly, B.A., & Lewandowski, G.W., Jr. (2014). Broadening horizons: Self-expansion in relational and non-relational contexts. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8, 30-40.  

Muise, A., Harasymchuk, C., Day, L.C., Bacev-Giles, C., Gere, J., Impett, E.A. (2019). Broadening your horizons: Self-expanding activities promote desire and satisfaction in established romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116, 237-258.