How People in Relationships Are Happier When They’re Growing As Individuals Too
Maintaining one’s sense of identity is crucial to relationships — after all, one’s partner falls in love with who one is as an individual, and not with the enmeshed identity one may create for themselves after entering into the relationship. But that’s not all; according to a new study, it’s also important to ensure we’re constantly growing as individuals too.
The theory of self-expansion in social psychology states that it’s very important for people to grow as individuals and develop their sense of self — in order for them to feel satisfied with the lives they have. “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,” explained Holly Parker, a lecturer on psychology at Harvard University, who wasn’t involved in the recent study.
Published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, the study attempted to investigate the link between happiness and self-expansion. The researchers divided the study into two legs: one with 224 men and 183 women, and the other with 106 men and 97 women. Their conclusion: the more self-expansion one experiences, the happier they felt. 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 the research, then prompts the question of self-identity — which people can lose in their quest for a partner. We know from instinctive wisdom that losing oneself or compromising one’s individuality, is inimical to the overall health of the self and the 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 can go into a relationship with a fantasy that the union will assuage their insecurities, hurts, and unresolved issues from their past. Within this illusion of fusion, or fantasy bond, both individuals begin to deteriorate,” Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist, wrote in Psychology Today.
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The findings of the present study, alongside Firestone’s take, echo an instruction we’ve heard annoyingly often on airplanes: “Put your oxygen mask on first.” The idea, here, is that we’re not going to be in a position to help others if we can’t breathe ourselves anymore. Similarly, if we’re caught in a perpetual state of unhappiness, and being resentful toward our partners, it’s quite likely that the relationship will suffer.
Moreover, a lot of romantic relationships are mistakenly anchored around the idea of finding a “soulmate” — or the “missing piece” that will make us “complete.” Firestone believes our approach to relationships can determine the course it takes, “The idea of finding your ‘missing piece’ or ‘soul mate’ is based on misconceptions… [T]o try to accomplish this, a person has to be less than they are. In the process of giving up part of themselves, they come to resent their partner,” notes Firestone. That doesn’t just hurt one’s self-identity, but also disadvantages the relationship they share with their partner.
This furthers the argument in favor of maintaining one’s identity as an individual — even if they are in a romantic relationship. Firestone notes: “When people are in an individuated 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.”
Researchers of the present study, too, agree with Firestone. Kevin McIntyre, from the department of psychology at Trinity University, who led the study, believes that self-growth boosts people’s self-esteem, enabling them to be happier individuals. This, in turn, translates to greater relationship satisfaction, too — besides a stronger sense of commitment.
This isn’t to say that in order to be happy in a relationship, one necessarily needs to learn how to be happy on their own; that line of thinking is not only discriminatory to people with mental illnesses, but potentially, it can also gaslight survivors of abuse into thinking they are somehow responsible for their unhappiness. Moreover, constantly finding ways to be happy is an idealistic, ambitious ask to make of people in a world ravaged by a global health crisis — and the mass trauma and financial insecurity that followed. Having said that, retaining one’s sense of self while in a committed relationship isn’t optional, though.
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Interestingly, the researchers of the new study found that when “individuals include aspects of their partner into the self, or when they share novel and challenging activities together,” they were less likely to experience depression. To determine their partners’ contributions to their self-expansion, the participants were asked questions like: “How much does your partner help to expand your sense of the kind of person you are?”; “How much has knowing your partner made you a better person?”; and “How much do you see your partner as a way to expand your own capabilities?”
However, it is also pertinent to note that the study didn’t assess whether the participants had been diagnosed with clinical depression. As such, its findings can’t be extrapolated to say that self-expansion might hold therapeutic benefits for people struggling with clinical depression. What the study does, instead, is tell people in long-term relationships how they can be happier — not just as a couple, but as individuals too.
This calls for a recalibration of how we approach relationships, and our role in them. The partners don’t have to become static, unchanging individuals; they can build their individual identities, in unison.
According to McIntyre, it’s also possible to embed activities that promote self-expansion into one’s relationship: “Learn new skills with your partner [like] taking dancing lessons or cooking classes. If you like hiking, try going to a different park or taking a different trail. Switch up your tendencies every now and [then]… It can be really tempting to stick with the safe and comfortable, especially in these difficult times. [But] people should look for ways to add new positive aspects to their sense of self.”
As actor Katrina Kaif had famously said on a talk show in 2018: “When neither of you need each other, when there’s no great dependency on the other person. There’s just admiration, there’s respect, there’s companionship and there’s a space of ease between you.” That space is, perhaps, where happiness lies.