When we are involved in serious romantic relationships, we find ourselves turning from a “me” to an “us”.1 This isn’t just a matter of semantics: The very nature of the self evolves through the relationship. We start to see our own self-concept as overlapping with that of our partner.2 That means that as we become increasingly committed, we find our self-concept actually changing—the “us” becomes “me.”3 But how does our self-concept change, and are these changes good or bad for us and our relationships?
According to Mattingly, Lewandowski, and McIntyre, our relationships can change our self-concepts in two ways:4
- First, the size of your self-concept can change. It can expand, to include new traits or to make existing traits more prominent. For example, a man may discover a passion for gourmet cuisine after dates involving the preparation of elaborate meals. Alternatively, the size of your self-concept could shrink because the relationship has caused certain aspects of the self to be lost. This can happen because the relationship has caused you to neglect certain parts of yourself. For example, a woman may no longer feel beautiful because her husband is critical of her appearance. This could also occur if you suppress traits that are discouraged by your partner, such as a man becoming less aggressive because his wife objects to that kind of behavior.
- Secondly, the valence of your self-concept can change—that is, the extent to which you perceive these changes to yourself as positive or negative. The examples above include both positive and negative changes. And in fact, even negative relationship events could still bring about positive self-concept changes, such as the discovery of one’s own personal strengths in the face of a relationship crisis.
Because both the size and valence of our self-concept can shift, there are four distinct types of self-concept changes that can occur as our relationships become increasingly serious and interdependent4:
- Self-expansion. We add new, positive information to the self-concept. This can occur as we incorporate aspects of our partners’ personalities into our own and engage in new and stimulating activities with our partners.2
- Self-contraction. We lose positive self-concept content. For example, a man may be an avid baseball fan, but when his wife refuses to watch games with him, his interest wanes and being a sports fan is no longer an important aspect of his identity.
- Self-pruning. We lose or suppress negative self-concept content. Unlike self-contraction, in which the loss of traits makes the self-concept more negative, self-pruning improves the self-concept. Sometimes just being in a relationship can lead to a reduction in negative traits. For example, those who are married are less lonely. Other times, our partners can help us purge undesirable traits, such as a smoking habit, a weight problem, or a lack of self-confidence.
- Self-adulteration. We gain negative traits. This can occur when being in the relationship consistently changes your behavior for the worse. For example, if disagreements with her boyfriend lead a woman to criticize him, she may, over the course of the relationship, come to see herself as a critical person, especially if her boyfriend views her in that way and complains about her nagging and disapproval.
So, your relationship can change your self-concept, for better or worse. But how do these changes to your self-concept affect your relationship, as it continues to evolve? McIntyre and colleagues conducted two studies examining the connection between self-concept change and relationship outcomes:3
- In the first study, 55 adults involved in romantic relationships, 69% of them married, completed questionnaires about their self-concept and relationship at two time points, six weeks apart. Greater self-expansion and pruning in the first survey were associated with greater relationship satisfaction six weeks later. Conversely, negative self-concept change, in the form of self-contraction and adulteration, was associated with less satisfaction six weeks later. There were similar results for relationship commitment, except self-pruning was unrelated to commitment. This suggests that these self-concept changes occur throughout the course of the relationship and continue to exert an impact over time.
- In the second study, 147 adults in relationships, 76% of whom were involved in an exclusive relationship, completed a one-time survey about their relationship and self-concept. Those who experienced more self-expansion and pruning and less self-contraction and adulteration—that is, those who experienced more positive and less negative self-concept change—tended to have more positive outcomes in their relationships. They were less likely to consider ending the relationship, paid less attention to alternative partners and showed a greater willingness to sacrifice for and accommodate their partners. These results also showed that part of the reason for this was that these self-concept changes were associated with levels of commitment to the relationship.
Thus, the impact your relationship has on your self-concept will, in turn, affect how you feel about your relationship. More than that, it will affect how you treat your partner and the efforts that you make to maintain your relationship. When your relationship changes you for the better, you’ll go the extra mile for the sake of that relationship.
I am an associate professor of psychology at Albright College who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow me on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior.
1 Agnew C. R., Van Lange P. A., Rusbult C. E., Langston C. A. (1998). Cognitive interdependence: Commitment and the mental representation of close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 939–954.
2 Aron A., Aron E. N., Smollan D. (1992). Inclusion of other in the self scale and the structure of interpersonal closeness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 596–612.
3 McIntyre, K. P., Mattingly, B. A., & Lewandowski, G. W., Jr. (2014). When “we” changes to “me”. The two-dimensional model of relational self-change and relationship outcomes. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Published online before print, doi:10.1177/0265407514553334
4 Mattingly, B. A., Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., & McIntyre, K. P. (2014). “You make me a better/worse person”: A two-dimensional model of relationship self-change. Personal Relationships, 21, 176-190.