For those of you who took Introductory Psychology (way) back in the day, you might remember learning about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the top of his needs pyramid, he proposed that people are motivated to strive for self-actualization, where people begin to fulfill their potential and approach ideal, complete selves. Although contemporary research on Maslow’s Theory of Motivation has been limited, many of the same ideas are captured by the self-expansion model, which has received a lot empirical attention over the past 25 years (click here see here for our other articles on self-expansion). Self-expansion motivation refers to individuals’ desires to have new experiences, engage in challenging activities, and learn new things. Within close relationships self-expansion has typically been thought of as those things that couple members do together that are new and exciting (e.g., go on a trip or try a new hobby together). And these new and interesting activities matter for relationships. For example, past research has shown that self-expansion is an important way for couples that have been together for a while to maintain a spark in their relationship.1
However, relationships are an important avenue for self-expansion not only because of the things you do together with a partner, but also because those close to you can support you as you individually pursue your goals (another form of self-expansion). In fact, new research2 published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationship shows that actively supporting your partner as she or he learns a new skill can increase relationship satisfaction. In this study couples came into the lab and were temporarily separated from their partners. Researchers then told each of the participants that they would either be learning a new skill (taking a photography lesson) or engaging in a stressful event (making a video showing others how to use a digital camera). Before they started the lesson or making the video, participants were made to believe their partners had sent them a series of messages that were either very supportive (e.g., “Have fun…I bet you’ll be very good at that”) or were passive and showed a lack of interest in the task (e.g., “Sounds alright…I’ll talk to you in a little while”). Of course, these messages didn’t actually come from their partners, but instead were designed by the experimenters to either be actively supportive or passive responses. Shortly after receiving the messages from their partners, participants answered questions measuring their satisfaction with their relationships.
Among couples who have been together for a while (a little over a year) relationship satisfaction was highest when people believed they were going to engage in a self-expanding task (i.e., take a photography less) and had enthusiastic support from their partners. However, this pattern of results wasn’t found for people who had been dating for a relatively short period of time (a year or less); active support and self-expanding activities together only led to more satisfaction among those couples who had been together longer. It may be the case that there is already a lot of self-expansion happening in relatively new couples and it is difficult for these laboratory tasks to override that naturally occurring expansion. Similarly, partner’s enthusiastic support for self-expanding activities may impact couples who have been together longer because there is not as much naturally-occurring self-expansion going on between partners.
In short, if you have been together for a while, receiving support from a partner when you’re doing things that promote your own self-growth heightens your satisfaction with your relationship. We all have individual interests and goals that were are pursuing, and when our partners support us in achieving those goals it makes our relationship with them stronger. This is especially true for partners who have been together longer; for new relationships there is a lot of self-expansion happening as partners get to know one another, and early on, that promotes relationship satisfaction.
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1Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Heyman, R. E., Norman, C. C., & McKenna, C. (2000). Couple’s shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273–284.
2Fivecoat, H. C., Tomlinson, J. M., Aron, A. & Caprariello, P. A. (2015). Partner support for individual self-expansion opportunities: Effects on relationship satisfaction in long-term couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 368-385.
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.