As Summer approaches, many couples escape to vacation getaways for relaxation and a taste of luxury. But should couples consider making their vacation plans a little more adventurous if they want to spark more intimacy in their relationship?
In her long-term study on 373 married couples since 1986, Dr. Terry Orbuch has found that passionate attraction (defined as arousal, excitement, and mystery in relationships) unsurprisingly spikes in the beginning stages of relationships. Racing hearts, twitterpated feelings and a feeling of being fully alive are the hallmarks of couples who are freshly in love. Exciting as the sensation of passion might be, this physiological and emotional intensity is often not continuously sustained in relationships through years of commitment – in fact, Dr. Orbuch’s study found that passion in relationships tends to wane after about 18 months (5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, 2009).
So, how do couples reignite excitement in their relationship? In his bestseller, Five Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, Dr. Terri Orbuch suggests engaging in arousal-producing activities to replicate the adrenaline-surge of early relationships. “Going on a vigorous hike or a roller-coaster ride, parachuting out of a plan, and watching a scary movie [are] almost like fooling your brain that the arousal produced is really due to your relationship,” says Dr. Orbuch.
After adding novel activities like deep-sea fishing and zorbing to the ideas for date-night, couples may feel exhilarated but insecure, asking themselves if authentic and sustainable passion can truly return to their relationship in more meaningful ways. Feeling disconnected or stale in relationships is one of the most frequently stated reasons for seeking couples therapy at Relationships For Better, a marriage counseling center in Monrovia, California. Is there hope for mutual engagement and interest in long-term relationships?
The answer to this question rests on a buzzword in the field of relationship psychotherapy: “self-expansion”. Self-expansion is a term that was popularized by psychologist Arthur Aron to describe when relationships add excitement or interest in one’s life. According to a 2011 article in the New York Times on self-expansion by relationship writer Dr. Tara Parker Pope, this process is ignited when “individuals use a relationship to accumulate knowledge and experience”.
While self-expansion certainly occurs in the midst of new and exhilarating experiences, Parker Pope notes that research by Dr. Aron and Gary W. Lewandowski at Monmouth University reveals that individuals can experience self-expansion and personal growth in both dramatic and ordinary moments. When spouses introduce their partners to new groups in their community, or share an insight from a podcast, or try a new food, they are participating in new experiences that expand their perceptions of themselves and the world around them.
Aron’s research found that couples who experience more self-expansion in their relationship have more commitment and satisfied relationships than those who do not: Dr. Aron asked one set of couples to engage in mundane activities together and another set of couples to participate in silly or novel experiences together. The couples who had engaged in silly activities rated their relationship as more satisfying than the couples who had participated in mundane activities together. It seems that cultivating new thoughts, interests, and activities may be integral to sustaining thriving relationships.
Another related term for self-expansion dubbed by Caryl Rusbult, a researcher at Vriie University, is “the Michelangelo effect”: a phenomenon that occurs when “close partners “sculpt” each other in ways that help each of them attain valued goals,” writes Dr. Parker Pope. Over time, couples “eventually adopt the traits of the other – and become slower to distinguish the differences between them,” writes Parker-Pope. “It’s not that these couples lost themselves in the marriage; instead, they grew in it.” When one’s partner introduces one to a new philosophy, characteristic, or activity, eventually those qualities become intertwined in one’s own life experience. Two become one.
“People have a fundamental motivation to improve the self and add to who they are as a person,” Dr. Lewandowski says to Parker-Pope, “If your partner is helping you become a better person, you become happier and more satisfied in the relationship.” Those individuals who practice intentional self-expansion through taking advantage of educational opportunities, novel life experiences, developing skills, serving their communities, and widening social circle are not only cultivating a well-rounded and fruitful life but are increasing the potential for a thriving relationship with potential partners.
Research that reflects the importance of maintaining interest in relationships through self-expansion suggests that individuals may opt to reconsider the current approach to finding a romantic partner. Popular dating sites like Match.com and Eharmony.com have reinforced the idea that individuals should seek to date someone who is most similar to oneself. However, Dr. Aron's research suggests that perhaps individuals may benefit by instead prioritizing another set of qualities: curiosity, flexibility, and an adventurous spirit.
Parker-Pope, T. (2011). The Happy Marriage Is the ‘Me’ Marriage. Retrieved May 27, 2015.
Tartakovsky, M. (2013, January 30). 5 Steps to a Successful Marriage. Retrieved May 27, 2015.