5 Ways to Tell if You, and Your Relationship, Will Grow Over Time

In a long-term relationship, it’s all too easy to start to let habit take over and to forget what drew you to your partner in the first place.

As you go through the routines that characterize your days, the sameness of your life can start to turn to staleness. Where was that joy and spontaneity that once made life with your partner so exciting and fresh?

Unfortunately, the very sameness that can make a relationship comforting and give you a sense of security can also become the breeding ground for feelings of boredom. You can look at your watch and know without giving it any thought that your partner will walk in the door at precisely 6:07 p.m. and that, by 6:52 p.m., you will be eating fish if it’s Tuesday and pasta if it’s Friday.

If you stray from this tight schedule, your partner becomes irritated and you become anxious. Things don’t feel right if you don’t have the safety of knowing what to expect.

However, in the back of your mind, you know that life should be about more than maintaining the status quo to such an extreme extent.

The Value of Breaking From Routines

According to the University of Toronto, Mississauga’s Kiersten Dobson and colleagues (2024), given that relationships “are essential aspects of living well… it is therefore critical to understand the elements involved in promoting high-quality, fulfilling relationships over time.”

One of these elements, the authors maintain, is “self-expansion;” ways to fulfil your “intrinsic” or internal motivation by engaging in new and challenging activities that expose you to different perspectives.

The opportunity for self-expansion would seem, by default, to be most likely to occur early in a relationship with a new partner. Think back on when you first met your partner. Chances are they had at least some activities and interests different from your own.

Maybe you would never have set foot in an art museum until your partner, who is a fan of a particular artist, enticed you (with the offer of a lovely lunch) to go see an exhibit dedicated to this artist’s major works. After the experience, you felt that you learned something of value that changed your views about spending time in a gallery.

Over time, you and your partner may develop and deepen the understanding that both of you have about this particular artist. However, it’s no longer something new. If you are going to expand your horizons, you’ll have to find some other way.

The UT Mississauga-led research team proposed that the feeling that your self will expand through your relationship, or “self-expansion potential,” should make a unique contribution to relationship quality above and beyond the benefits either individual will experience.

Additionally, the belief that self-expansion can occur in the future even if a particular day is relatively humdrum could provide an arc that would allow you to remain optimistic that growth with your partner will occur.

The 5 Keys to Self-Expansion Potential

Across two studies with romantic dyads (115 and 100, respectively, in relationships for an average of 7 and 24 years, respectively), Dobson and her collaborators collected data on the Self-Expansion Potential Scale along with daily measures for 14- and 21-day periods that included daily self-expansion behaviours (e.g., “Tried new things with your partner”), daily self-expansion cognitions (e.g., “Today I gained more insight, experiences, and knowledge from my partner”), and scales measuring relationship satisfaction and feelings of commitment. The second study included a two-month follow-up, and both studies included ratings from both partners, making it possible to conduct “actor-partner” analyses.

Looking now at the key predictor, the Self-Expansion Potential Scale (Lewandowski & Ackerman, 2006), see how you would rate on these five items (provided by the authors upon request). Use a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree):

  • I feel that my current relationship with my partner will give me opportunities to grow in the future.
  • I feel that if this relationship with my partner were to continue I would be able to gain more insights, experiences, and/or knowledge from my partner.
  • If my current relationship with my partner were to continue I would feel as though I was missing opportunities to enhance myself. (Reverse scored)
  • I feel that my relationship with my partner cannot offer me anything new in the future. (Reverse scored)
  • My relationship with my partner has the potential to make me grow as a person in the future.

The average scores in the two samples (per item) were approximately 6, meaning that the majority of participants saw themselves as being optimistic about self-expansion in the future.

However, participants were rating themselves at the lower end of the scale, particularly in the first study (1.2), but the correlations between partners were low (.26 and .14 out of a possible -1 to +1), suggesting that there was considerable variability in perceptions between partners in the same relationship.

Turning to the test of the predictive effects of self-expansion potential on relationship outcomes, people who scored higher on this five-item measure were more likely to engage in self-expanding activities and felt that they indeed were growing from them. To varying degrees, but in a positive direction, perceptions of self-expansion potential also predicted satisfaction and commitment.

When it came to daily self-expansion behaviours themselves, it was only those reported by “actors” and not partners that contributed to positive relationship outcomes. As the authors noted, “One’s partner’s reports of shared novel and exciting activities do not necessarily uniquely contribute to relationship quality.” Perhaps it is that positive glow, and not the reality of the day’s activities, that serves to keep the self-expansion effect afloat.

Another word of warning about self-expansion came in the form of an effect in which self-expansion cognitions by actors negatively predicted feelings of commitment two months later.

As the authors noted, “perceiving high levels of self-expansion may be beneficial at the moment (hence the daily effects) but decreases over time as couples shift out of the honeymoon phase.” Perhaps holding too high of an expectation for self-expansion could paradoxically set you up for some disappointment.

Making Self-Expansion Work for You

The underlying theory that informed this complex and well-conducted study held up reasonably well under the microscope of a two- to three-week daily experiences study used to predict later relationship quality.

Couples in the long-term relationships included in the UT Mississauga study tended to hold onto relatively high self-expansion potential beliefs, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with their own partners. The fact that they were still together appears to provide a positive endorsement of the concept, apart from its impact on relationship quality.

Using the five items from the test, you can now use each as a guidepost for both you and your partner to consider as you seek ways to break up the routines into which you may be falling. What do you like to do that your partner doesn’t, and vice versa?

Or if you and your partner happen to have identical interests, what could you agree on as a new avenue for individual and joint self-expression? If you’ve always rented the same vacation spot every year for the past 15, try considering one that would take both of you at least somewhat out of your comfort zone. You might even turn this into a recreational research project as you seek ways to grow.

To sum up, self-expansion through life can have its value. Exploring the ways you and your partner can enhance each other’s potential to grow can only have positive effects on your fulfilment as individuals and as a couple.

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