I have, for many years, felt that a principal (in fact, the principal) pillar upon which love is based is its ability to make us feel better about ourselves. We are able to see in the look, touch, and reactions of people that we love reflections of the best part of ourselves. The mirror that love holds up to us is a highly flattering one. Not a false image, however – just one that highlights the parts of ourselves that we are (or can come to be) proud of, and one that also filters out many of the faults and flaws that we see (and often magnify) in ourselves.
In my experience, the most successful relationships, whether they be romantic, or indeed fraternal, or business-related, go well beyond providing a highly positive reflection. After all, a specific image of one’s spouse, lover, friend, or employer, no matter how positive, can lead to disappointment through unrealistically high expectations, or can become stale and stagnant. The most successful relationships are those in which each party to the relationship both allows and facilitates growth of the other.
Said another way, these successful relationships bring satisfaction to the individual through the process of self-expansion. Many of my couples clients, however, are afraid of the individuation that is needed in healthy relationships. One partner tries to keeps tabs on, or control, the other. Not only is this process futile; it is in the end self-limiting.
Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychology professor who directs the Interpersonal Relationships Laboratory at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., a professor at Monmouth University in New Jersey, have studied this phenomenon extensively. While the concept of self-expansion may sound inherently self-serving, the professors have found that it can lead to stronger, longer-lasting relationships. If you think of the ways in which various individuals or institutions in your lives have contributed to an expansion of your knowledge and experience base, (enjoyable or valuable activities, traits, skills, and behaviors) you can see why their attractiveness would be enhanced. Whether introducing you to a new restaurant, a new friend, a new vacation destination, a new art form, a new sport, or a new sexual technique, a partner who expands your horizons makes you feel better about yourself because you discover new ways in which you are capable of enjoying life. Similarly, a company or supervisor who encourages you to try new things, at least some of which you’ll succeed at accomplishing successfully, will wind up being preferable to those who hold you to the same tasks and responsibilities year after year.
The effects of self-expansion are most clearly observed when people first fall in love. At The University of California, Santa Cruz, 325 students were asked to complete a questionnaire every other week for 10 weeks which gave them three minutes to describe themselves. They were also asked about any significant experiences they had had in the past two weeks. The students who reported falling in love during this ten week period were seen to use a broader variety of terms to describe themselves. The new relationship had literally expanded their view of themselves.
Life is very much about accumulating and adding to your abilities and experiences. If your partner (or friend, or employer) is helping you become a broader person you become happier and more satisfied in your relationship. In my roles as life coach and couples therapist I see example after example of people who come to me feeling that they have stagnated. Often this is at least in part due to their partner or their employer failing to provide expansion opportunities. And frequently (and more damagingly) it is because the partner or employer is actively seeking to block expansion. Rather than looking to constrain your partner or employee (which inevitably leads to a power struggle), look to your relationships to see where you might inject, or acquire, more expansion. If the opportunities to do so are strictly limited, you might be wise to begin contemplating a fundamental change.