Fact Sheet

The (selfish) secret to a happy marriage

Improving yourself can also improve your relationship, say researchers who have concluded that partners want to feed off of each other's growth

While traditional wisdom dictates that the secret to a happy marriage is putting the relationship first, researchers are now suggesting that the best marriages may be those in which individuals prioritize their own happiness. "In modern marriage," writes Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times, "people... want partners who make their lives more interesting." Here, a brief guide to this counter-intuitive take on marital bliss:

What have researchers found?
Professors at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and at New Jersey's Monmouth University have been studying how individuals use relationships to acquire new knowledge and experiences, a process called "self-expansion." Studies have found that the more individuals feel they are improving, thanks to a stimulating partner, the happier and more committed they are in their relationships. Another researcher, the late Caryl Rusbult of Amsterdam's Vrije University, called it the "Michaelangelo effect," because close partners "sculpt" each other to help one another achieve goals.

How did they come to this conclusion?
For his research, Gary W. Lewandowski, Jr. of Monmouth University developed a quiz that asked couples to rate how much their partners were contributing to their personal growth. His results showed that while "self-expansion" may seem self-serving, it actually made relationships stronger and more sustainable. "If you're seeking self-growth and obtain it from your partner, then that puts your partner in a pretty important position," says Dr. Lewandowski. "And being able to help your partner's self-expansion would be pretty pleasing to yourself."

What do these findings mean for those in committed relationships?
To prevent boredom in long-term relationships, couples should engage in "novel and interesting experiences" together. These findings may sound obvious, but "many couples seem to quickly forget it — either ending up bored in their marriages, or getting so lost in their relationships that they individually disappear," says Lauri Apple at Jezebel. "So sign up for those welding classes, and encourage your partner to resume their yoga practice, and see what becomes of it. Learn, grow, change."

Sources: New York Times (2), Jezebel

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