New research suggests a happy marriage is more about focusing on “me” than “we.” I want to share the findings and see if you agree. The gist of the research is that while many couples stay together out of obligation or commitment, they may not find their marriages satisfying and enjoyable. To make the relationship meaningful, we have to grow and expand ourselves as a result of what we learn from our partner.
Arthur Aron, professor and director of 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, studied how people use their relationships to expand themselves by accumulating knowledge and experiences. The more self-expansion individuals experience from their partner, the more committed and satisfied they are, say researchers. They developed a questionnaire to measure self-expansion and satisfaction in relationships. For example, respondents chose higher ratings if their spouse introduced them to new experiences or taught them new things. Thus, the relationship was deemed more rewarding or satisfying.
The researchers say that focusing on improving ourselves may sound self-serving, but it enhances the relationship. Your partner becomes more important in your life as he or she helps you grow and learn, or even meet new people. By broadening our horizons, our spouse can help us broaden the way we look at ourselves, they say. Read Tara Parker-Pope’s summary of the research in the New York Times.
I’ve shared research in the past about how thinking in terms of “we” rather than “me” is beneficial to the marriage. (Read The Power of “We” in Relationships. )There’s also a large consensus that says putting your spouse and marriage first is the way to find a lasting marriage. So, how do these apparently disparate results jibe with one another?
I don’t believe they are so disparate after all. When I heard one of the researchers describe the study during a TV interview, he said the basics of a relationship—love, commitment—are primary and need to be met first. Helping one another expand our horizons does improve our satisfaction levels. However, I don’t believe it means we should focus only on ourselves. If I’m only concerned with what I’m getting from my partner, and not what I am bringing to the relationship, I don’t believe it will be very satisfying, meaningful and sustainable. When both partners are eager to share new ideas, new friends, new experiences and knowledge, the relationship will become more exciting and rewarding. In fact, we’ve long known that trying new things together keeps the love hormones (oxytocin) flowing in our relationship.
Further research found couples who were involved in new and interesting experiences together were less likely to report boredom in the relationship, and they were more likely to see their lives as overlapping rather than separate. Dr. Lewandowsky says, “If your partner is helping you become a better person, you become happier and more satisfied in the relationship.”
The helpful part of the research is that it reminds us we need to maintain individual interests and individual growth, and that sharing our thoughts, feelings and experiences should be an important part of our lives as a couple. It’s important to retain our own identify and not lose ourselves while trying to meet another person’s every need. However, by focusing only on our own needs, I think we negate the purpose of marriage and reduce our opportunity for intimacy. It also may lead to the harmful conclusion that our partner is not “doing enough to make us happy.” Instead, we can ask ourselves what are we doing to make our own lives fulfilling and meaningful, and how are we sharing our lives more fully with our spouse.
How are you focusing on your own growth this year? How are you supporting your spouse in his or her efforts to grow and expand this year? How are you sharing your experiences in a meaningful way?
Photo Credit: ©PhotoXpress.com