There’s something to be said about the “we-ness” of high-quality romantic relationships. When you think of your relationships in a plural sense (e.g., “We’ve been together for 6 years,” rather than “I’ve been with him/her for 6 years”), you sometimes start to define who you are (what psychologists call your self-concept) in terms of those relationships. By defining yourself in this way, you include aspects of your romantic partner in your self-concept. For example, you might take on some of your partner’s characteristics, or see your partner’s interests as your own (think about it – did you actually get into that eccentric rock band because you think they make great music…or was it because your partner liked them first?). In many studies, partners who define themselves in this pluralistic way tend to enjoy greater closeness, more commitment, and greater relationship satisfaction.1,2 In other words, the more you include your partner in your self-concept, the better your relationship is likely to be.
But is it always good when we include our partners in our selves?
Perhaps not. New research suggests that including your partner in your self-concept may involve hidden risks – especially when considering how the amount of inclusion you actually have compares to the amount of inclusion you would ideally like. Researchers recently examined how the discrepancy between these two types of inclusion (real vs. ideal) affects relationships over time.3
Each year over a three-year period more than 1,600 adults in the US and Canada who were in romantic relationships provided ratings of both their actual and ideal levels of inclusion. The researchers used the difference between these two ratings to gauge the discrepancy between the closeness a person actually feels and the closeness a person ideally wants. For example, if on a 7-point scale, with higher numbers indicating more inclusion, you rated your actual inclusion a “3” and your ideal inclusion a “6,” then you would have a closeness discrepancy of “-3” for your relationship. Such a negative discrepancy would mean that you don’t feel as close to your partner as you’d like.
Consistent with past work (and regardless of gender, relationship length, or marital status), those who reported feeling greater actual closeness to their romantic partners were more satisfied with their relationships, more committed to their relationships, and tended to think about breakup less frequently. So far, so good.
Now here’s where things get interesting – the relationships of those who reported discrepancies between actual closeness and ideal closeness weren’t so well off. Regardless of whether that discrepancy was negative (i.e., feeling too little closeness) or even positive (i.e., feeling too much closeness), participants who reported greater discrepancies felt less satisfied, less committed, and thought about breakup more often. To top it off, they reported more depressive symptoms over the course of the study. Ouch.
So, whether it’s feeling “not close enough,” or even feeling “too close for comfort” in a relationship, each may have considerable consequences for relationship quality over time. The next question is: what (if anything) can be done to avoid the dangers that arise when partners feel this way? Stay tuned for an upcoming post where we’ll offer some potential answers.
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1Medvene, L. J., Teal, C. R., & Slavich, S. (2000). Including the other in self: Implications for judgments of equity and satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19(3), 396-419.
2Le, B., Dove, N. L., Agnew, C. R., Korn, M. S., & Mutso, A. A. (2010). Predicting nonmarital romantic relationship dissolution: A meta‐analytic synthesis. Personal Relationships, 17(3), 377-390.
3Frost, D. M., & Forrester, C. (2013). Closeness discrepancies in romantic relationships: Implications for relational well-being, stability, and mental health. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(4), 456-469.
Fred Clavél, M.A. – Science of Relationships articles
Fred is interested in social support dynamics in romantic couples, the effects of context on relationships, relationships and health & well-being, and issues of the self in relationships. He draws primarily on theories of social exchange, attachment, motivation, and social cognition in his research.