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Does Personal Growth Benefit a Relationship?

New research examines the potential impact of shared and unshared experiences.

  • Recent studies showed an association between experiences of personal growth on a given day and the passion individuals felt in their relationship.
  • The studies also add to the evidence that growth experiences shared by a couple can strengthen a relationship.
  • Chronically high individual growth, however, may be associated with lower feelings of passion in one's relationship.

There’s some truth to the old proverb that “familiarity breeds contempt.” When we first enter into an intimate relationship, everything is exciting because everything is new. You’re getting to know your partner, and they’re getting to know you. On top of that, each of you is also changing as you adapt to the new relationship.

Over the years, we get to know our intimate partner better than any other person, and this is when the excitement in the relationship often starts to wane. What was once new and exciting can become old and boring.

But this doesn’t mean that romantic passion is destined to fizzle out over time. Plenty of research shows that couples can maintain excitement in their relationship by jointly engaging in novel experiences that promote personal growth. This could be taking a ballroom dance class, traveling, gardening—really any activity that the couple enjoys doing together and that entails some sort of novelty or challenge to overcome.

As we step out into the world, we learn new things, we meet new people, and we have experiences we never imagined. All this leads to personal growth. Because the partners are engaged in these activities together, they’re also growing together, and this is what fuels the flame of passion in a happy marriage.

Research shows that personal growth is important at the individual level as well. When we learn something new, our sense of competence increases. That is, we get a renewed can-do confidence that derives from overcoming challenges.

But what happens when personal growth takes place outside of the relationship? When one partner has new experiences that the other partner hasn’t shared, does this lead to an increase or decrease in relationship quality? These are the questions that Durham University (United Kingdom) psychologist Kathleen Carswell and her colleagues explored in a paper they recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Shared Experiences, Personal Experiences, and Romantic Passion

The researchers reported on three studies that looked at the relation between personal growth and relationship quality. Two of these were daily diary studies in which each participant reported on experiences of self-expansion—involving elements like a sense of novelty, excitement, greater perspective, and expanded sense of self—either as an individual or with one's partner. Each person also indicated their current level of relationship passion.

The third study looked at couples who had recently relocated to a new city in a career move for one of the partners. The researchers speculated that the partner who’d moved for their career should be experiencing a degree of personal growth, at least as far as their job was concerned. Meanwhile, the sacrificing partner could be experiencing personal setbacks, career-wise anyway.

Consistent with previous findings, the researchers found that people who reported higher relational self-expansion tended to report greater passion in their relationship. But with regard to experiences partners had on their own, the implication for the relationship was more complicated.

On a given day, if one partner showed an increase in their personal growth experiences, they also tended to report greater passion in the relationship. Although the data don’t show us why this is the case, we can speculate.

Prior research shows that intimacy grows through the sharing of personal information. As two people reveal things about themselves that are generally not known to others, they develop a sense of closeness. When our partner comes home at the end of the day and shares an interesting experience they had, we learn something new about them, and this leads to an increase in intimacy. Additionally, their good mood can be infectious, boosting our own sense of relationship quality as well. Thus, when one partner experiences personal growth on a given day, this can lead to a boost in intimacy and relationship quality for both partners.

However, the results also suggest that when one partner engages in a prolonged period of personal growth that doesn’t include the other partner, it can cause problems in the relationship. As the researchers report, "more chronic personal self-expansion was associated with lower romantic passion." In the short run, personal growth leads to an increased sense of competence, and hence to a boost in mood. But over time, the psychological benefits of this continued personal growth may be lost as these couples experience less satisfaction with their relationship. In other words, they may feel themselves growing apart.

The Implications for Romantic Relationships

There are some important lessons to take home from this research. First, it backs up previous research suggesting that long-term couples grow together by engaging in shared novel experiences. This is the rationale behind the standard prescription for struggling couples to go on “date nights.”

The research also reaffirms the general finding that personal growth yields psychological benefits for the individual. As we meet and overcome challenges, our sense of self-competence also increases. This makes us more confident in our abilities, which boosts our mood.

Finally, it seems that one partner's long-term personal growth may have a negative impact on the relationship: "...consistently growing outside of the relationship in ways that are not shared with a romantic partner may reduce feelings of closeness and connection, and ultimately passion." In a sense, our once-intimate partner may become someone we feel as if we no longer know.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should avoid personal growth outside the relationship. That is unavoidable as we grow in our careers and our interactions with other people. However, the results of this study do suggest that we need to supplement our own individual development with shared experiences with our partners, as these are what will keep us growing together rather than apart.

Facebook image: Kamil Macniak/Shutterstock

References

Carswell, K. L., Muise, A., Harasymchuk, C., Horne, R. M., Visserman, M. L., & Impett, E. A. (2021, January 25). Growing desire or growing apart? Consequences of personal self-expansion for romantic passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000357

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