How “Self-Expansion” Makes a Happier Marriage

On New Year’s Eve Tara Parker-Pope posted an article titled The Happy Marriage Is the ‘Me’ Marriage on the New York Times web page. We found the article intriguing and, despite the headline, supportive of some of the things we have been saying about successful marriages for years. Some highlights from the article are listed below.

“The notion that the best marriages are those that bring satisfaction to the individual may seem counterintuitive. After all, isn’t marriage supposed to be about putting the relationship first?”

“But in modern relationships, people are looking for a partnership, and they want partners who make their lives more interesting.”

“Caryl Rusbult … called it the “Michelangelo effect,” referring to the manner in which close partners “sculpt” each other in ways that help each of them attain valued goals.”

“…individuals use a relationship to accumulate knowledge and experiences, a process called “self-expansion.” Research shows that the more self-expansion people experience from their partner, the more committed and satisfied they are in the relationship”.

“If you’re seeking self-growth and obtain it from your partner, then that puts your partner in a pretty important position,” … “And being able to help your partner’s self-expansion would be pretty pleasing to yourself.”

“…research suggests that spouses eventually adopt the traits of the other — and become slower to distinguish differences between them, or slower to remember which skills belong to which spouse.”

“It’s not that these couples lost themselves in the marriage; instead, they grew in it. Activities, traits and behaviors that had not been part of their identity before the relationship were now an essential part of how they experienced life.”

“If your partner is helping you become a better person, you become happier and more satisfied in the relationship.”

Click here to read the complete article.

As I read the article, I realized that working to grow into the best person I can be really isn’t as selfish as it sounds. The best “me” is a person able to have a depth of relationship with others and able to make the best use of the gifts and talents I have, for the benefit of others, as well as myself. Growing to take on Rita’s best traits simply brings out that same gift in me and is an expansion of the person I am. I suspect that it also helps us to remain “interesting” to each other after many years and that it promotes a commonality of interests that keeps our relationship lively.

While the article’s statement “ Research shows that the more self-expansion people experience from their partner, the more committed and satisfied they are in the relationship” is a good thing to know, it doesn’t say anything about how that happens.

Fortunately, we have an answer. Our experience is that personal growth results from both loving another and being loved by another with a deep, self-giving love.

Rita’s love for me is very powerful in allowing me to grow as a person. My experience of her caring and concern for me allows me to open myself to her and to hear her when she tells me that I am lovable and where I might need to change. She allows me to take the risk of changing myself and being more vulnerable to her and others, knowing that she will always be there and always love me. One of Rita’s best qualities is her compassion for others and it is one that has grown in me with her encouragement and her example. Her assurance that I am lovable has given me the confidence to be involved in a group and participate without the pressure of always having to prove myself. That has been very freeing for me and helped me to become a better leader. Loving and being loved has pretty much reduced any sense of competition between us (except in Scrabble) and allows me to support Rita in the activities she takes on and to rejoice in her accomplishments.

Our mutual love keeps me a better person and supports the naturally happy and active person I am.

The article references a Michelangelo effect in which each spouse “sculpts” the other. In our book, Forever and a Day, we call that the” power of love” and title our last chapter that. As we were writing we looked at what happened to each of us as individuals because we loved another and were loved as completely as could be done by that person. Life changing and life transforming things happened as a result.

I have no doubt that every aspect of who I am today was sculpted because of Bob’s love for me. That has most definitely enhanced my experience of myself, of Bob and our marriage relationship. None of this would have happened without trust and commitment. On our wedding day we made a forever commitment to each other and we decided to have great trust in the other and our relationship. The Times article talks about self expansion that must take place in a happy meaningful relationship. That idea is not new. Dr. M. Scott Peck and Dr. Ray Short spoke of this in the 1970 and 80’s. We can attest to the fact that we have lived this in our years together. Every dimension of who I am has changed because Bob has helped sculpt, expand or challenge me to grow. While I look the same physically I have tried physical risks that I would never have tried without his encouragement. It has also helped to acknowledge where my physical boundaries lie. Climbing mountains is okay but riding roller coasters is not. Emotionally I have come to realize that I have great compassion. It affects every relationship I am in and contributed to my being a successful teacher. Bob sees that as one of my greatest gifts and says so to others when they mention it. I have grown in every dimension of spirituality because of my desire to love and be loved. I see God in many different ways and pray in ways I didn’t always when we were married.

On Holy Family Sunday I was struck by the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians in which he writes the following. “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love.” (Col 3: 12-14). To help to sculpt or help the other to expand and grow remembering St. Paul’s words might be helpful.

We would like to hear from you. What is your response to the article? What is the secret to happiness in your marriage?


About Rita & Bob Boeke

Rita Boeke has experience teaching scripture and with her husband Bob has experience in enriching marriages through workshops and retreats. They post a weekly blog at and co-authored Forever and a Day: An Invitation to Create a Marriage that Lasts a Lifetime.
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