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Relationships

The “We” of Healthy Relationships

Committing to a relationship means expanding oneself to include another person.

Key points

  • When a couple commits, they establish a boundary around themselves, creating new entity: “we.”
  • Including a partner in one's self identity—shifting from "I" to "we"—has positive effects on health and happiness.
  • When one partner enhances their own experiences, it can reignite passion within a relationship because both partners experience the expansion.

When couples make a commitment to each other, there is often a transition in how the individuals speak. Instead of “I” did this or that, it becomes “we” did this or that. Or “we” think thus and so. This is not a mere grammatical change. It reflects a profound shift in the self of each member of the couple. That is, the partner becomes a part of the self. This is described in self-expansion theory or the inclusion of other in the self (IOS).

Therapists often talk about the importance of healthy boundaries for mental and relational health. Healthy boundaries are selective: They keep some things or people out, but they are also important in keeping other things or people in. When a couple commits to each other, they are establishing a boundary around themselves, creating a unique, new entity: “we.”

Historically, this has been acknowledged in the community by a public wedding or other ceremony. Although not every couple engages in this public acknowledgment, they still make commitments to each other. A variety of factors have been identified as contributing to satisfying relationships. The development of IOS means that one’s partner’s health and happiness contribute to one’s own.

Sexual satisfaction contributes to health and happiness for both partners. Although there are different ideas regarding whether long-term relationships increase or decrease sexual passion and satisfaction, it has been suggested that adding novelty and exciting experiences can reignite the relationship's passion. This has been found for both individual and shared experiences.

IOS may help explain why individual experiences contribute to relationship passion (Pietras, Wiessner, & Briken, 2022). Researchers found that while the individual’s own participation in these types of events did not predict marital satisfaction, the partner’s participation did (Piechota, Ali, Tomlinson, & Monin, 2022). The types of activities predicting satisfaction included participation in church, business groups, or other social groups. Greater frequency and activity in these groups were positively related to the partner’s marital satisfaction. When an individual expands themselves through interest and engagement outside the couple, their partner experiences that expansion also.

Multiple studies have found that relationship and sexual satisfaction are related to one another. When sexual relationships are satisfying, they contribute to marital satisfaction, and vice versa. However, when a sexual relationship is problematic, it has a greater effect on dissatisfaction than a good sexual relationship has on marital satisfaction. So, this may contribute to understanding why self-expansion, including one’s partner in oneself, enhances sexual passion.

Becoming a couple, shifting from “I” to “we,” has lots of components. The relational intimacy of shared lives, affection, and understanding, as well as each person's pursuit of their own development, contributes to that growing sense of “we” which enhances passion and builds relationship satisfaction. We enter relationships because we have positive emotions and experiences with the other person. It is not about learning how to fight or negotiate conflicts, although these are important skills for protecting relationships so they can endure. But it is first and foremost about the satisfaction of being in a relationship with someone we love and value, in part, because they become a part of who we are.

References

Piechota, A., Ali, T., Tomlinson, J. M., & Monin, J. K. (2022). Social participation and marital satisfaction in mid to late life marriage. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 39(4), 1175-1188. doi:10.1177/02654075211056289

Pietras, L., Wiessner, C., & Briken, P. (2022). How Inclusion of Other in the Self Relates to Couple's Sexuality and Functioning – Results from the German Health and Sexuality Survey (GeSiD). Journal of Sex Research, 59(4), 493-503. doi:10.1080/00224499.2021.1998307

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