Research may say that married couples who treat their marriage like a friendly business arrangement stay together longer than those who wed their soul-mates. But who wants to be married to a business partner? Most of us want more out of our marriages than simple survival. We want happiness.
Tara Parker-Pope has an interesting story up on her Well blog about how to lay hold of marital happiness (and keep it). Simply put, the best marriages are the ones that work to make both partners happy as individuals. The more personal growth people experience in a relationship, the happier they’ll be with their partner.
Rather than seeking out the perfect relationship, this line of reasoning goes, we should seek out relationships that give us lots of room to grow and try new things. It’s becoming our more perfect selves that really makes us happy. A partner who supports you in your own growth is the one you want to spend your life with. As Pope points out, that may sound selfish. But it works.
The term of art for this rapture-inviting personal growth is “self expansion”. It refers to the process by which people take on the traits of their spouses, and also learn and experience new things together. You become more yourself because of your partner. Over time, couples can come to resemble each other. The ones who continue to learn and grow and try new things will, research says, be happier than those that stagnate and grow bored. Boredom is a major predictor of divorce.
As Pope says:
The concept explains why people are delighted when dates treat them to new experiences, like a weekend away. But self-expansion isn’t just about exotic experiences. Individuals experience personal growth through their partners in big and small ways. It happens when they introduce new friends, or casually talk about a new restaurant or a fascinating story in the news.
The effect of self-expansion is particularly pronounced when people first fall in love.
If self-improvement lies at the core of marital happiness, maybe all those couple’s therapy sessions are a waste of time and we should be hitting the climbing gym or visiting the MOMA together instead. I’m definitely intrigued by this idea.
Not only because I prefer art museums to therapist’s offices. The best marriages I see around me, and the best times I have in my own marriage, follow this pattern. My husband and I are at our best when we’re helping each other pursue a dream or indulge in a treasured hobby.
What do you think? Does self-expansion really make or break a marriage? What keeps your marriage strong? What pulls it apart?