Episode 185: Self-Expansion, Balancing Novelty & Security in Relationships

Every one of us wants and craves the security and safety that comes with marriage and commitment, knowing our partner will always be there for us, through the good times and the bad. We also need novelty, that sense of newness and excitement that comes during early romance.

How do we balance these two fundamental needs, achieving the need for novelty, while also securing the steadiness we want in our couplehood? Security fosters a sense of love and belonging, while novelty fuels passion, satisfaction, and happiness. Too much of one and not enough of the other can lead to relationship dissatisfaction and conflict, requiring serious intervention from a counselor, and potentially divorce.

There is a solution (and it is not polyamory): Jackie discusses how couples can self-expand throughout a lifetime, continually growing as individuals, always re-creating themselves as new partners, someone for your spouse to re-discover, creating a pattern of continual passion and stability.

TRANSCRIPT: Self-Expansion, Balancing Novelty & Security in Relationships

Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. Today’s episode is another one looking at relationships, looking at intimacy, and today we’re going to be focused on how to have successful long-term relationships.

Now there are several voices out there recently in the past five years, maybe even longer than that, who are talking about or questioning this idea that human beings are meant to be monogamous. Human beings may not be monogamous, or maybe we’re meant to be serial monogamists, meaning we do long-term relationships, but we are meant to do several of them throughout our lifetime.

Well, there are some interesting points and questions that the people who are talking about that are raising. Now, if you are interested in having one successful long-term relationship and hoping that lasts for the bulk of your living years, then you’re also going to get some good news from this podcast episode because, as we learn from the questions that are being asked, researchers have started to dig in and look at what elements lead to long-term, satisfying relationships.

Now you may be like me in that you’ve known a lot of people who have been married for a really long time, but you wouldn’t necessarily describe their relationship as successful or meaningful or even something that you would be interested in having. I don’t know that there’s a benefit to staying together for long periods-of-time if the relationship itself isn’t satisfying and meaningful. Now I say that, too, as a kid who grew up in a family where my parents’ relationship was not meaningful, and it was not satisfying for anybody living in our house.

Being the second of six kids, I was older when my parents got divorced, and I remember myself and my one brother and I’m not sure who all was there, but there were several of us as kids who sat down one day with my mom and asked her to please get a divorce. Their marriage was painful, like I said, for everybody living in that house, and we weren’t interested in continuing this relationship because it had some real consequences associated with their marriage.

So, I’m not one of those therapists who believes that the couple has to stay married regardless of what’s going on. That just wasn’t my life experience, and that’s not my world view. I do believe that you can have long-lasting, meaningful, satisfying relationships. Still, I think it does require some work, and I also think if you’re going to be in a long-term relationship, then you owe it to your partner, you owe it to yourself, you owe it to the kids, if you have them, to make it a satisfying, healthy, meaningful relationship.

Now, we know that for many couples, there is a sharp decline in relationship satisfaction after a few years. Couples will report that the romance is gone. They report that the attachment may be there, and the relationship is okay, but it’s not really satisfying or meaningful. For decades, psychologists have been working on how to make our relationships the best that they can be.

I’ve talked before on this podcast about John Gottman and his wife Julie and the work that they’ve done on relationships. They followed couples long-term over decades of the marriage, and they can predict within a small percentage of error the success of that relationship and whether or not it’s viable, and whether it will last and be meaningful or whether it will break up or be one of those disaster relationships.

So, there’s a couple of crucial components that we know are good and necessary for long-term relationships to be successful and satisfying. The first one is trust. We have to be able to trust this person that we live with, that we are building a life with, that we’re maybe sharing children with, and so much more with.

One of the things that I talk about with couples when I’m working with them is you can only control what’s going on for you. So, I’m looking at, and I’m asking questions about are you trustworthy? Are you showing up in a way that builds trust, or do you show up in ways that damages trust? Now again, nobody’s going to be perfect, so we also know from the Gottmans’ research that one of the things that is very important to be able to have, a skill that we need to have in long-term successful relationships, is this ability to repair the relationship, again, because nobody’s perfect, we’re going to have to be able to repair where we go wrong when we step on our partner’s toes.

The Gottmans found that this had to do with the relationship and the friendship that existed in the coupleship. So, if this couple, if they were friends and they have integrity in their relationship, then when a mistake is made, when toes are stepped on, when hurt is caused, they’re much more quickly to give into repair. The person is more likely to trust them because they know that they are cared for, they know that there’s a friendship that the relationship is built on.

Another critical factor in successful long-term relationships: Is this person accessible to me? Are they available to me? One of the things that can happen in long-term relationships is both of the people are creating hobbies and interests outside of their relationship. So they may not always be available. They may not be accessible for the partner. Sometimes this can happen because we get to know each other so well and we can predict what’s going to happen, how our partner may respond, how they may think or feel about a certain thing that we turn our focus outward and we lose sight of the relationship that we have with each other.

Another key factor is how conflict is handled: Again, every relationship is going to have conflict, so is it going to have have healthy conflict or unhealthy conflict? And again, some of this goes back to trust. Some of this goes back to accessibility and availability. Relationships without conflict haven’t been tested. We don’t know what they can withstand. Now that doesn’t mean that you should go out and have a fight in order to test the integrity of the relationship because, again, conflict will naturally arise from having two different separate people who are in a relationship with each other. Instead, it means that conflict is an opportunity to learn how to love each other better over time.

What I may want may be different from what my partner may want, and we may have conflict when I do what I would like, and it’s not meeting what he would like. So again, we may have conflict over that issue. We may have to work through that and listen to each other and use healthy communication skills, and I can learn how to love him better, and vice versa.

The other thing that relationships run into is that every relationship can get boring after you’ve been together for years. Our brain likes excitement. It likes a challenge. It likes a puzzle. So when we know this person, when we’ve lived with this person, when we’ve seen them day in and day out, our brain can get pretty efficient at predicting this person. Even if maybe there’s some new things that this person is doing or growth that’s happening, our brain may not fully engage in that, because it’s decided I know this person, and I’m done because this person is done changing. So again, we can run the risk of, kind of, just falling into a rut in our relationships or having the relationship become boring.

When I’m working with a couple, if this is the case, we may find that they’ve started to look external to the relationship in order to find something novel, to discover something new, to find something challenging. Again, this may take us out of being available or accessible to our partner and may overall do damage to the nature of our relationship.

Love isn’t just a feeling. It may be a feeling, but it’s also a choice. It’s also a commitment, and how we choose and commit to our relationship on an ongoing basis has a lot to do with whether or not this long-term relationship can be satisfying and meaningful.

I often will say it’s easy to love somebody when they are being lovely. The problem is human beings aren’t lovely all of the time, and so our love has to extend beyond what’s easy or what’s comfortable for us. I sometimes think too, when we begin a new relationship with somebody, a lot of times what we’re feeling in this relationship has to do with how this other person makes me feel, which isn’t a bad thing.

It may be a little bit immature; it may be slightly narcissistic. I love you so much because you make me feel good about me. Maybe a little bit slightly narcissistic, but not a deal-breaker, and also I have to add not indicative that this is a narcissistic person. The brain just kind of works in a way because of survival, because of wanting to continue to live and be safe, the brain works in a way that is interested in the self and self-preservation, which is fine.

Long-term relationships, however, require some maturity. They require this ability to build some depth.

One of the things that happen after maybe the first year or two years of a relationship is that we start to find our partner maybe knows us too well. They just don’t see the things that we want them to see. They don’t see all of our strengths and capabilities. They also know our fears. They also understand our insecurities. They know maybe things about us that we don’t necessarily put out there for public knowledge, and this is the side of intimacy that may not feel so great because again, our partner becomes this mirror in which we see both the good and, more importantly, the bad things. I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily bad, but the things that make us uncomfortable about ourselves. But we can’t have just the one side of intimacy. We can’t have intimacy where our partner only knows good things about me. Our partner has to know the good, bad, and otherwise about us, which is really what intimacy is about. It’s the whole; it’s knowing the whole and being known.

One of the things that I talk to couples who have been in long-term relationships and want to make it meaningful or want to make it successful, I will talk with them about two needs that we have in relationships that may work against each other, but they also can work for each other and package nicely together, and those are the need for novelty and the need for security.

Let me talk about security first. You may know couples who have a deep connection. When you look at them together or even apart, they both appear satisfied. They’re relaxed. They’re comfortable. They’re happy. They have a positive perspective and outlook on life. A stable relationship makes both partners thrive as individuals, and they also enjoy their time together as a couple.

Now in long-term relationships, we can run the risk that there is so much stability and so much comfort in this relationship that it’s kind of killed the passion, or it’s destroyed the novelty that drives and fuels passion. Now in relationships, we don’t want it to be so new and novel and unpredictable that I don’t even know if I’m going to be in this relationship next month or next year, and I don’t really know anything about how we might look together going forward. That’s too much unpredictability. That’s too much novelty, to the point where I can’t start to plan, or we can’t really as a couple begin to build and collaborate on something.

On the other hand, we don’t want the stability to kill passion, so we have to be able to find novelty. This is one of the reasons that I say to couples, for most of the couples that I work with, not all, but for most of the couples that I work with, if the couple, not necessarily the whole family, but if the couple goes away on vacation, even if it’s not far away, even if it’s just for the weekend, things tend to get a little bit better. The reason behind that is because something is new. This isn’t our norm. This isn’t our typical ritual. So, a lot of times, sex gets better, sex happens, a lot of times conversation gets better, and the couple has time to dialogue and think and really have a good, meaningful conversation. So, that’s kind of the role that novelty can play, but I also will warn clients not to look so much for novelty outside of yourselves and miss the opportunity for novelty that we create internally.

Some of the things that happen when you enter into a relationship—number one, you literally increase who you are. You take on, or you share in your partner’s perspectives on the world. In addition to your own, you take on their social status, their resources. In fact, so much self-expansion takes place in the early stages of a relationship that it very likely contributes to the rush and excitement we feel that makes that time of our relationship so special.

Sometimes when I work with these couples, they’ll talk about those early years of their relationship where they could just talk and talk and talk for hours. They would lose track of time. How exciting every kiss felt from their partner. The self-expansion model is a way of understanding love and relationship. The basic idea is that we have these two fundamental human drives—one for survival, and the other to expand ourselves. Self-expansion includes everything from exploration and acquisition.

We might acquire new knowledge, we might acquire new experiences, we might acquire an increase in our social status, we might acquire material things. It also is an increasing of our personal efficacy, particularly with regard to achieving goals, so as we look at this self-expansion and how it relates to novelty, we find that there’s a vast unchartered territory that can be discovered and that actually as we explore and discover things in that unchartered territory, it actually can improve our relationship.

Now again, we have to balance novelty with stability and security. We don’t want our exploration to be so expansive that our partner doesn’t even know what’s happening anymore or that they’re being left out of what we’re experiencing because we’re not sharing with them. I think it’s important to distinguish that this exploration and this self-expansion is not nearly a midlife crisis. This isn’t about not liking ourselves and doing a quick 360 where all of a sudden, adding these things that I may or may not have actually gone through the process of figuring out for myself.

We also need that stability in order for our partner not to feel threatened or replaced by the things that we’re exploring and learning about ourselves in this process of self-expansion.

Now self-expansion partly explains why the first few months or a year of a new relationship can feel so intoxicating. How do we keep that going, though, even just a little bit? Again, we’re not looking to recreate this honeymoon phase of our relationship into a long-term. However, we are looking to create a relationship where both people are still encouraged to learn and grow and expand themselves.

Now, as with most things, we can find bypasses for actually doing the hard work, so I talk a lot about sex with clients. So, I will say you may decide that watching porn together is a way to bypass actually figuring out how to bring self-expansion into your sexual relationship. You may find that novelty can come from new positions or new lingerie or a new sex toy. I don’t have anything against sex toys or lingerie or learning new positions. Still, if we’re using that as a bypass and we’re not actually looking at self-expansion, then that may not bring long-term satisfaction and meaning to our relationship.

Now self-expansion or novelty or passion, spontaneity doesn’t necessarily mean that you and your partner need to do hang gliding or bungee jumping or other adrenaline-producing activities. It may be something as simple as walking in a new part of town or trying a new restaurant or going on a road trip just for the day. Maybe it’s about taking a class together or learning something together as a couple. The point is we’re doing something new. We’re challenging the self, which is what leads to this self-expansion.

Now it’s interesting to note that if we did things early in our relationships that were new and challenging and exciting, like less than maybe a year or two years together, that doesn’t show benefits later down the road in our relationship. A lot of this is because in that first year or even two years, the relationship itself is novel enough, so we don’t necessarily get the benefits of doing new and novel things in our relationship during that time when the relationship itself is new. Doing new and challenging experiences together and apart after the relationship has become somewhat stable and secure has shown enormous benefits to the connection and the passion in the relationship, and studies have shown that those benefits tend to last.

Again this doesn’t need to take a lot of time or money, which is good because we’re all busy, so you don’t have to invest a significant chunk of time. Researchers in one study directed couples to take part in stimulating, interesting pursuits together for just 90 minutes per week, and what was reported is that partners felt more upbeat in general. They were more content and enthusiastic in their relationship a month later.

Now, you also don’t need to do things that stress yourself out with anything that is too arduous or complicated. Evidence points to couples gaining a mood and relationship boost when their self-expanding efforts are at an average level of difficulty, so not too simple that it’s not really challenging us, but also not so demanding that it scares us. What’s more, the research found that we have flexibility with how we choose to self-expand, so you can do it on your own, take up a new hobby or join a book club with people who are not your spouse or with your spouse. We can learn a new sport, or we can take a class together, or we can do a combination of things that we do together and find common interests or things that we do individually.

The other good news is we don’t have to do things or pursue things that are equally new to both of you. So, we also have found in research that there’s a benefit where one partner who maybe is better at something or is not as new to something shares with the other one and teaches them or shares something that they’re passionate about with their partner. You may not be doing a whole lot of self-expanding while you’re doing that, but hopefully, you’re patient, and you’re a good teacher, and it allows your partner to do a lot of self-expansion, and again when we see our partner doing things that are self-expanding, there’s novelty for us. It fuels a passion that we have for our partner and in our relationship, and it adds a lift to the happiness level in our relationships.

We can even do things like if you really like going to the movies together, or I know couples who really enjoy watching a particular sport together. These things again are novel because we typically are not watching the same movie every time. We’re not having the same experience as we watch this game or as we go to a play. We get caught up in the novelty of the actor and the plot of the play or the movie. We get caught up in the brilliance of the athlete and how the team performs. These activities that fit into our daily lives and are maybe something that we’re already interested in, when we do it intentionally and when we’re aware of what’s happening, they can produce this novel experience each time that we’re engaging in that.

The other thing we need to remember as we’re looking at self-expansion is to have fun. The goal is not to become a master of whatever we’re trying. The journey of self-expansion is not intended to be a chore, but rather a rich open door for you and your partner to learn more about yourself and each other and to grow and flourish in the process.

We know that self-expansion and relationship wellness have several meaningful links. People who expand their image of themselves are happier with their partners, they’re more dedicated to the relationship, and they’re less apt to separate. They’re also less inclined to stray and be unfaithful. Self-expansion is also associated with partners feeling greater sexual longing for each other. They have more sex, and they relish their sexual experiences with each other more, and that’s in addition to new knowledge, new skills, new experiences, and enhanced perspectives that the couple gets from self-expanding and embracing what’s unique and intriguing in life.

If you’re finding yourself in a rut in your relationship, it’s time to look inward and not outward. It’s time to look at what have you shrunk from? Where have you not challenged yourself? Where are you not risking in a way that doesn’t destabilize the stability of the relationship, but where are you just becoming complacent and maybe apathetic in your life and thereby in your relationship?