How personal growth makes people in relationships happier
Maintaining one’s sense of identity is crucial for relationships – after all, one’s partner falls in love with who one is as an individual, not the tangled identity one may create for oneself after stepping into the relationship. But that’s not all; it’s also important to make sure we’re constantly growing as individuals, according to a new study.
The self-expansion theory in social psychology states that it is very important for people to grow as individuals and develop their sense of self – so that they feel satisfied with the life they have. “When we grow, we essentially expand our understanding of who we are, what we are capable of, and how we view life,” explained Holly Parker, associate professor of psychology at Harvard University, who were not involved in the recent study.
Posted in the Journal of social and personal relationships, the study attempted to investigate the connection between happiness and self-expansion. The researchers divided the study into two parts: one with 224 men and 183 women, and the other with 106 men and 97 women. Their conclusion: the more personal expansion one experiences, the happier one feels. In the context of this study, self-expansion refers to the “process of adding positive content to one’s self-concept by engaging in new, challenging, and interesting activities,” as defined by PsyPost.
The focus on “self” in research then raises the question of self-identity – whether people box lose in their search for a partner. We know by instinctive wisdom that losing or compromising one’s individuality is detrimental to the overall health of self and relationship.
“On the one hand, [relationships provide] an opportunity for two individuals to be supported by each other’s appreciation and love [allowing them to] flourish and grow as people. On the other hand, people may enter a relationship with the fantasy that the union will ease their insecurities, hurts, and unresolved issues from their past. In this illusion of fusion or fantasy connection, the two individuals begin to deteriorate,” Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist, wrote in Psychology Today.
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The findings of this study, along with those of Firestone, echo an instruction we’ve often heard annoyingly on planes: “Put on your oxygen mask first.” The idea here is that we’re not going to be able to help others if we can’t breathe. Similarly, if we are caught in a perpetual state of unhappiness and resentful of our partners, chances are the relationship will suffer.
Additionally, many romantic relationships are mistakenly anchored around the idea of finding a “soul mate” – or the “missing piece” that will make us “complete”. Firestone believes that our approach to relationships can determine the right course, “The idea of finding your ‘missing piece’ or ‘soul mate’ is based on misconceptions… [T]To try to accomplish this, a person must be less than he is. In the process of giving up a part of themselves, they come to resent their partner,” notes Firestone. This not only harms personal identity, but also disadvantages the relationship they share with their partner.
This strengthens the argument for maintaining his identity as an individual – even if he is in a romantic relationship. Firestone notes, “When people are in an individualized state, they are happier and more optimistic. They have a stronger sense of themselves, so they are capable of more intimacy, love, and passion in their relationship.
The researchers of the present study also agree with Firestone. Kevin McIntyre of Trinity University’s psychology department, who led the study, believes that personal growth boosts people’s self-esteem, allowing them to be happier individuals. This, in turn, also results in greater relationship satisfaction, in addition to a stronger sense of commitment.
This does not mean that to be happy in a relationship, one necessarily needs to learn to be happy on his own; this line of thinking not only discriminates against people with mental illnesses but also minimizes people’s abusive behavior. Moreover, it is an idealistic and ambitious request to make to people in a world ravaged by a global health crisis – and the mass trauma and financial insecurity that has followed. That said, however, maintaining a sense of self in a committed relationship is not optional.
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Interestingly, the researchers found that when “individuals include aspects of their partner in the self, or when they share new and challenging activities together,” they were less likely to experience depression. To determine their partners’ contributions to their personal development, participants were asked questions such as, “To what extent does your partner help you expand your sense of the kind of person you are?” » ; “How much has knowing your partner made you a better person? » ; and “To what extent do you see your partner as a means of extending your own abilities?”
However, it is also relevant to note that the study did not assess whether participants had been diagnosed with clinical depression. As such, his results cannot be extrapolated to say that self-expansion might have therapeutic benefits for people struggling with clinical depression. Instead, the study tells people in long-term relationships how they can be happier, not just as a couple, but as individuals as well.
This requires a recalibration of our approach to relationships and our role in them. Partners do not have to become static, immutable individuals; they can build their individual identities, in unison.
According to McIntyre, it is also possible to incorporate activities that promote self-expansion into one’s relationship: “Learn new skills with your partner [like] take dance or cooking lessons. If you like hiking, try going to another park or taking another trail. Change your tendencies from time to time [then]… It can be very tempting to stick to safety and comfort, especially in these difficult times. [But] people should look for ways to add new positive aspects to their self-esteem.
As actress Katrina Kaif said on a talk show in 2018: “When neither of you need each other, when there’s no great dependence on the other person. There is only admiration, there is respect, there is camaraderie and there is a space of ease between you.This space may be where happiness lies.