Partnering up can help you grow as an individual – here’s the psychology of a romantic relationship that expands the self

It’s common to want to become a better version of yourself. Much like the desires to eat, drink and avoid harm, human beings also experience a fundamental need to learn, grow and improve – what psychologists call self-expansion.

Consider your favorite activities. Things like reading a book, spending time in nature, volunteering with a new organization, taking a class, traveling, trying a new restaurant, exercising or watching a documentary all broaden the self. Those experiences add new knowledge, skills, perspectives and identities. When who you are as a person expands, you enhance your competence and capabilities and increase your ability to meet new challenges and accomplish new goals.

Of course, you can achieve self-expansion on your own by trying new and interesting activities (like playing Wordle), learning new things (like advancing through a language app) or working on a skill (like practicing meditation). Research confirms that these kinds of activities help individuals expand themselves, which encourages them to put forth more effort on subsequent challenging tasks.

Interestingly, romantic relationships can also be a key source of growth for people. As a relationship scientist for over 20 years, I’ve studied the effects all kinds of romantic relationships can have on the self. Today’s modern couples hold high expectations for a partner’s role in one’s own self-development.

man and woman with musical instruments sit on couch

You can hold onto what makes you your own person while learning from a partner’s strengths.
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Growing in your relationship

Falling in love feels good, and spending time with a romantic partner is enjoyable, but love’s benefits run even deeper. People tend to value partners who help them become a better version of themselves.

One way to optimize self-growth in your relationship is by sharing in your partner’s unique interests and skills. When “me” becomes “we,” partners blend their self-concepts and include the other in the self. That merging encourages partners to take on each other’s characteristics, quirks, interests and abilities to some extent. Romantic partners inevitably have different life experiences, knowledge bases, perspectives and skills. Each area is an opportunity for growth.

For example, if your partner has a better sense of humor than you do, over time, yours will likely improve. If they have an eye for interior design, your ability to put together a room will evolve. A partner’s differing views on climate change, politics or religion will grant you new perspectives and a deeper understanding of those topics. Your relationship helps you become a better person.

This isn’t to say that individuals should try to completely merge, running the risk of losing themselves. Rather, each person can maintain their own identity while augmenting it with desirable elements from their partner.

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