Self-Expansion and Growth in Relationships
Tuesday, 4 January 2011
Back in the old days, when I was much more a relationship-focused kind of guy than a seduction-focused kind of guy, I built this model for relationships, since I hadn’t seen any good concrete models out there and I thought it could be useful. The idea didn’t get a whole lot of interest from folks at the time, so I didn’t bother to do a lot of writing on it or really lay the model out anywhere, but it was called GISS, and the “G” in GISS was the central point the others connected to, and it stood for “Growth.” Growth was the keystone of a relationship that supported the other three pillars and was the key defining aspect of what made a solid, successful partnership.
I’m recalled to this today by a fascinating article I just read in the New York Times titled “The Happy Marriage is the ‘Me’ Marriage”, which could just as easily be about long-term relationships in general as it could marriages specifically. The central element of the ‘me’ in the title of the article is, as it turns out, all about shared personal growth in one’s relationship. The title might perhaps have been a bit more suiting were it worded “The Happy Relationship is the ‘We’ Relationship”, but the point is it’s about that keystone element that’s so essential to the proper running of a long-term relationship.
The thing this article, by a gal named Tara Parker-Pope, does that I found quite good is it ties three different pieces of research together into a coherent picture of how growth impacts long-term relationships positively. The research is also all new to me, an uncommon thing for a guy who scans the major science publications daily and keeps a keen eye out for socio-psychological studies in particular.
It talks about the powerful force that association plays in close long-term relationships. Emotional association, something I ought to write a proper post on, is the term for when a person feels so close to you that they feel like the two of you are “bound”. They feel what you feel (or what they think you feel), and retain a sense of responsibility toward you that compels them to strongly seek to avoid hurting you and actively seek to help you succeed in all different kinds of ways.
Parker-Pope’s NYT article zeroes in on this specifically, discussing research findings that people with strong emotional association to their partners actually have a harder time identifying words that describe only them than they do identifying words that describe both them and their partners. An individual in a closely bound relationship is quicker to identify words that describe both partners. The article also, and this is the point most relevant to us here in this post, identifies research where people who were more engaged and growing in their relationships identified their relationships as more closely bound than relationships where the partners were bored and unstimulated.
In other words… the research provides confirmation that growth in a relationship does indeed serve as the crux of a close, happy union.
What Growth Is, and Why It’s So Important
So, growth is the key to relationships. The other three pillars – investment, strength, and security – are important, but they fall apart in the absence of growth, just like the VAC model falls apart in the absence of forward momentum during a seduction.
There are two sides to the growth coin in a relationship model, which I’ll term here self-expansion and forward momentum. I’m going to talk about both; the article referenced focuses mainly on the self-expansion side of things, and the author is right to focus on it, and I’ll explain why; but first, let’s define these two sides to growth.
Self-expansion is the term for growing and developing and improving the self. When you go on a self-improvement kick, you’re practicing self-expansion. When you learn more, you’re self-expanding. When you have new experiences, that’s self-expansion. Challenges are self-expansion. Problems you overcome are self-expansion.
Forward momentum is the term for a feeling of progress and advancement in a relationship. The first dessert you share is forward momentum in a relationship. So is your first kiss. The first time you get intimate together is forward momentum. Meeting each others’ friends is forward momentum. Meeting one another’s parents is forward momentum. Getting pregnant is forward momentum. Moving in together, getting married, having children, all these are forward momentum. They’re steps that feel like progress is being made in the relationship.
The reason why growth is so vitally, unavoidably crucial to a relationship is the same reason as why forward momentum is absolutely essential to a seduction: it’s because if something isn’t making progress, it’s stagnating and decaying. Your relationship is either getting better, or it’s getting worse; there’s no such thing as neutral.
You must maintain growth to maintain a close and successful relationship. That study cited at the end of the NYT article – here’s the exact study, “Marital Boredom Now Predicts Less Satisfaction 9 Years Later”, published in Psychological Science in 2009 by Irene Tsapelas of Stony Brook University, Arthur Aron of Oakland University, and Terri Orbuch of the University of Michigan – that study is probably the most important one mentioned in that article for this reason: it clearly, demonstrably shows, in very elementary fashion, that relationships short on growth are also short on satisfaction. To have a close, bound, fulfilling relationship, growth must be present.
But like most important things in life, most people have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to seeking growth in a relationship, and they go about it in entirely the wrong way.
The Downfall of Forward Momentum Over the Long Term
I’m actually very excited by that study cited just above. Its thinking on relationships is quite good; the abstract highlights the main problem with growth that I’ve noticed most relationships run into, and that was the big headscratcher for me when I first started doing my thinking on growth. That was the problem of what to do when you run out of ways to continue forward momentum.
Here’s the problem I started getting worried about once I started thinking about growth: most people view growth in relationships the traditional way – via perceived growth. Which means, if you want to grow your relationship, first you start dating. Then, you get together physically. Then, you go exclusive. Then you move in together, then you get married, then you have kids. Or something similar to that order; maybe one comes before the other, or another comes a little later or a little earlier, but it generally progresses in that fashion.
But then, what do you do when all those things are done?
That’s when most people’s long-term relationships stagnate and fall into decline. People start getting depressed, bored, and unhappy; some want out, some rebel, some just sink into a funk. Some bury themselves into their work and tell themselves this is just the way life is, and you have to just grin and bear it. Regardless, once a couple runs out of forward momentum, their relationship quite often stagnates, and the joy it once held for them fades.
My first thought was, “Well, you just slow down the rate of forward momentum, so there’s always something to look forward to in the future.” You move as slowly through the steps as you can, to avoid running out of forward aspirations. For instance, you put off meeting a girl’s friends as long as possible; maybe you don’t actually meet her friends and she doesn’t meet yours at all until you’ve been together six or seven or eight months. Maybe you don’t meet each other’s parents until you’ve been together a few years.
Some guys race through the steps of relationship forward momentum, what’s known as a “whirlwind romance,” and it’s exciting and exhilarating and absolutely thrilling for both parties. But then, once they’re married to their girl and the two of them have settled into an apartment together somewhere and the first baby is on the way… what then?
That’s why you hear so many people reminiscing on when their love was fresh and new. That’s where you get the phrase, “New love is true love.” Once the novelty fades, and all the forward progress that could be made has been made, it starts feeling like there’s nothing left to do but sit around and maintain what’s already been achieved.
That’s why the movies are about two people falling in love, not about two people who’ve been living together for ten years and have a couple of kids. Because it’s nowhere near as interesting or exciting; it doesn’t really feel like there’s anything that couple is still working to attain together.
Self-Expansion to the Rescue
[L]aboratory and shortterm ﬁeld experiments suggest a causal effect of reducing boredom (by shared participation in exciting activities) on relationship quality (e.g., Aron et al., 2000).
Hope, as demonstrated in that quote from the research by Tsalepas et al., is not something so easily vanquished, and it turns out that forward momentum is only one side of the growth coin. The other, as we touched on earlier, is self-expansion.
I started realizing self-expansion when I looked for a way to slow forward momentum. Because you can’t just slow forward momentum and replace it with nothing; there needs to be a feeling of continual growth in a relationship, or women begin to rebel. They want progress, and they need it, or they start panicking. It depends on the girl, of course; some women are less combative and will tolerate longer periods of stagnation than others.
I, however, at the time I was doing all this thinking on long-term relationships, was dating a girl who was probably one of the most dynamic, passionate women on planet Earth, and she was never going to tolerate stagnation for a second, as well she shouldn’t have; she was an incredible woman, and deserved the best. The instant it felt like growth had paused, she’d start rebelling hard.
The realization I came to though was that even when we weren’t making forward momentum, when we were traveling together and working on new things together, all was okay. I moved out to California, and she was flying back and forth between there and Washington, DC every three weeks to see me and hunt for jobs, for close to six months. It was a dynamic time where we were working hard on a project together, to get her out to San Diego and get her a good job that would advance her career, and we became closer than ever. When she finally found work, she was overjoyed, and she was thrilled for her first six or seven months in San Diego. In the meantime though, I made a huge error that would cost me not long after I started making it: I let things stagnate. She’d had a big victory, and was riding the satisfaction of that victory, and I fell into the trap of thinking I could abandon growth and her happiness would just go on and on.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way, and without forward momentum, and without self-expansion, things soon fell apart. It was an unfortunate lesson, and as I told her, it was a shame it was one I had to learn with her, rather than with an earlier girlfriend where I could’ve come to the relationship having already learned the lesson and knowing to avoid making that mistake, but it was the way it was.
I learned the lesson, though: abandon growth, and your relationship will fail.
I also, from the ashes of that relationship, came to a new realization: self-expansion could substitute for forward progress. You didn’t have to be continually focused on making the traditional steps of a traditional relationship; replace that with self-expansion, and you’d do just as well.
Here’s another quote from that paper by Tsapelas and company:
The experimental and other research (e.g., Graham, 2008) demonstrating this effect [of relationship quality being enhanced by a reduction in boredom] is based on the self-expansion model (Aron & Aron, 1986), which indicates that the excitement often experienced during relationship formation arises from rapid development of closeness, the rate of which inevitably declines over time. However, if partners experience excitement from other sources (such as novel and challenging activities) in a shared context, this shared experience can reignite relationship passion by associating the excitement with the relationship.
In somewhat simpler terms, the loss of closeness, excitement, and passion in a relationship that comes with an end to forward momentum can be regained by replacing forward momentum with joint self-expansion.
It’s so nice when the research dovetails so cleanly with what you’re experiencing anecdotally in the field.
How to Use Self-Expansion
There are a variety of ways to best use self-expansion to replace forward momentum and keep a relationship energetic and fresh, or reenergize a fading relationship. More important than listing a number of ideas for these though, is first painting the elements of a successful effort at joint self-expansion – because there are a lot of ways to do it wrong.
Elements of Successful Joint Self-Expansion
- It must be something she is passionate about. If you move a girl to a new city or country she hates, or try to get her involved in developing a hobby or business idea she has no interest in, it’s going to fail as an effort at self-expansion. If on the other hand she loves the ocean and you convince her to get PADI certified with you and start scuba diving, you’ve just found an outstanding self-expansion project that will sustain you heavily for the next year or so, and will play a smaller role in helping you maintain growth after the initial learning phase as you continue going on scuba adventures from time to time. If you move to a new city she’s excited about, that’s a great self-expansion project that will likely sustain her for a year or so. If you launch a new business selling something she enjoys being involved in, and have her actively managing and growing a part of the business as you work on it with her jointly, that’s a self-expansion project that will have an initial excitement phase of a year or so and provide some smaller long-term benefits like scuba.
- You must be embarking on at least one new major adventure together per year. If you noticed in that last bullet, I was giving timelines for how long each self-expansion project provides a boon to your relationship, and it’s generally around a year or so. Smaller projects won’t last as long; occasionally you might find a project that lasts a little longer. Typically though, just like in relationships, there is a 2 year drop after which what formerly was stimulating and exciting becomes old news. This is because of the loss of novelty – the longer someone has done something, the less she learns from it, the less stimulating and exciting it seems, and the less she feels like it is causing her to grow.
- You must do this thing together. Another trap you may be tempted to fall into is setting a girl up on a new project or endeavor, and leaving her to it. For instance, she’s interested in acting; so you help her find acting lessons, wish her good luck, then drop her off at the acting studio and drive off to grab a beer with your pals. Nope, this doesn’t cut it as joint self-expansion. Whatever it is you’re doing, it must be done together. She must associate the learning and growth with you, which means you must play a major role in the new experiences she has. Whether that’s as her mentor, as her student, or as her partner, it doesn’t matter; but whatever it is, she must be learning, and she must be learning with you.
Summed up, successful self-expansion type growth is all about stimulating your girl – and yourself – with a novel situation where she is being forced to adapt, change, and grow, and doing it together with her jointly. Believe it or not, that’s the key, I’m coming to think more and more, to general happiness in life, period:
Feeling like you are making steady progress and learning in the things that matter to you.
Find something that matters to the both of you, and start making progress in it together in a way that you are both learning and being stimulated, and you’ll suddenly find you’re both engaged, energized, and stimulated – and quite happy together.
Finding new avenues for major self-expansion on an annual basis might sound like a tall order, but it’s really not. Once you get into the cycle of seeking to improve yourself, and she gets into the cycle of seeking to improve herself, and the two of you are improving together and creating synergies in your partnership and teaching other and advancing each other, you’ll start getting ideas for things to do together popping up all the time. I recommend having a place you write these down that you can come back to so you don’t lose or forget old ideas. Maybe a Google Documents file that you’ve shared with her and the two of you can edit and update with ideas and plans for things you want to do together, or maybe just a notebook you keep on your own of ideas you’ve had spring to mind or things she’s said that it sounds like she wants to do.
One big new project a year is for sure doable. Just, again, make sure it’s something she wants to do and feels inspired about; I’m getting a picture in my head of some guy reading this article, then dragging his poor girlfriend or wife off on some mission she doesn’t want any part of. Find something you both can be inspired about. You should never have to push a girl to be involved; if she’s tired or doesn’t want to do it, trying to compel her to do so is not the answer. Let her relax, and come back to it when she wants to. Only pull her in if you feel she’s really gotten lazy and think she will get excited about it again when you get her doing it.
Here are a couple of thoughts off the top of my head for some joint self-expansion projects:
Big Projects (for long-term self-expansion)
- Starting a business together
- Learning a new language together
- Moving to a new city or country together
- Learning a new skill together, like dancing or scuba diving
- Launching an exercise program together
- Taking up and learning a new art together, like painting, photography, or playing an instrument
Small Projects (for intermittent boosts of fun and excitement that add mini relationship milestones and cut routine / monotony / boredom)
- Outdoors activities like hiking, running, or jet-skiing together
- Travel to new and interesting places (find out specifically what she’s interested in about travel, too – buildings, new cultures, people, new foods, activities, etc., so you know what to make sure to include on your travels)
- Independent learning (e.g., you both are interested in a particular topic, and have engaging conversations sharing what you’ve learned recently or new ideas or conclusions you’ve come to)
- Making a short film together, about your travels, an activity you’re doing together, your sexual escapades, or whatever you like
- Adventurous sex, like new positions, adding toys, or getting into public / exhibitionist sex or sex in memorable places like the beach or a forest or the backseat of your car
You spend time in the world of seduction, you hear a lot of doom and gloom on relationships. Because, generally, guys good at picking up girls are often not all that much more talented at retaining them then other guys are – heck, sometimes the reason they get so good at getting girls is because they struggle to hold onto them in the first place.
Compound that with what you see in your seduction career as you become more and more prolific – you take girls as lovers who have loyal and devoted boyfriends and husbands who are completely clueless as to their liaisons with you; you see relationships failing all around you despite people’s best efforts; you see the anger and hostility people bare toward each other when relationships fail as they lie and stab each other in the back and betray each other. Relationships can be one of the most wonderful things in life, but they can also be one of the ugliest, most blood-chilling things too.
But they aren’t destined to fail, if they are maintained properly. Everyone talks about how it’s both partners’ responsibility to make a relationship work long-term. It isn’t though. It’s the man’s, and his alone. Almost every relationship I’ve seen fail that I have, it’s because the man stopped trying, and the woman lost faith.
You stop trying, your relationship fails. You cannot stop growing the relationship; you cannot get complacent. You need to let your woman know what she needs to do and what she needs to be (in a very tactful way) in order to maintain her interest, and you need to stay on top of the ball in maintaining hers.
The other three pillars of a relationship are vital as well, of course, and without any one of them, the house a relationship is built upon will fall. But growth is the central key that binds it all together; you must have growth to make your relationship work over the long haul.
And because there is only a finite amount of forward momentum to be had, the growth you inevitably must turn to is joint self-expansion. The good news is, the more joint self-expansion you do, just like anything, the better at it you get – the easier you come up with new, compelling ideas for things you and your girl can do together; the better a job you do selling those ideas and inspiring a girl and getting her onboard; and the better a job you do sustaining the growth and excitement they provide, and the discipline to keep the two of you on-track.
Growth is the keystone of a long-term relationship, and joint self-expansion is the cement that keystone is made from. Don’t ignore it, and get working on it today, or the next time you find yourself in a relationship. You’ll be glad you did, and your gal will be too.
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