Self-expansion and novelty in marriage

At this point it is route and cliché to say that couples should seek novelty in marriage. Perhaps you have not heard this advice in such terms but certainly the idea of “shaking things up” or “keeping it fresh” has reached you.

The honest truth—it’s great advice.

That lusty, unstoppable, boundless feeling of falling in love has a lot to do with novelty. It is no surprise that as we become familiar with one another novelty tapers off and perhaps some of that initial “effortless” love wanes as well.

But what about self-expansion? Dr. Arthur Aron’s self-expansion model tells us two things; as humans we are forever motivated to expand and that we often achieve this expansion through our close relationships. Novelty in marriage (or any relationship) nourishes that desire for self-expansion. We feel better, confident, and more fulfilled in our relationships.

Lasting couples know how to support and strengthen their bonds in different ways and creating novelty in marriage is one of them. This post will explore the “why” of novelty in marriage and (perhaps more importantly) the “how.” We will also look at this important concept of self-expansion and how that can further develop your relationship.

Self-expansion, limerence, and phases of love

Couples therapy thought leader Dr. Arthur Aron believes that a concept he calls "self-expansion" is essential to helping older couples boost their level of commitment to one another. But what does self-expansion mean?

Self-expansion is the urge to ratchet up feelings of power and agency. While self-expansion is not typically a declared goal of intimacy, the experience of self-expansion in the early days of a committed relationship frames the bond itself as a vehicle for an ever-expanding sense of confidence.

Why does our relationship call out for novelty? Where does self-expansion fit in our relationships? To answer that question, we can examine the beginning of our relationships. John and Julie Gottman (2017) describe 3 phases to how modern love develops:

Self-expansion and novelty in marriage

Phase 1-Limerence/ falling/deciding.

Many couples experience romantic love as a powerful transformation. Intrusive thoughts, nervous excitement, romantic aspiration, and a profound fear of rejection are par for the course. Neuroscience has profoundly expanded our understanding of limerence or the neurology of early romantic love.

There are also feelings of profound transcendence, freedom, and exhilaration that are in fact, a cascade of powerful attachment neurochemicals. I suspect this lovely background soundtrack resembles what Dr. Aron called self-expansion.

However, it is often overlooked that while limerence is a common human experience, it's not universal. Some couples slide or decide into life-partnership. Gottman tells these couples that their bond is no less authentic for a dearth of fireworks.

Phase 2- Trust Builds (or not) as conflicts emerge.

Phase 2 is where couples endeavor to build trust by how they manage conflict. Attachment is either built up or torn down by the way we answer these big questions, in small ways, every day.

"Will you be there for me? Can I count on you? Will you put my needs on a level equal to your own? it is here where fantasy encounters reality. As personality differences, old wounds, and attachment injuries compound, often resulting in secrets and lies. Many couples feel a drop in satisfaction as the honeymoon phase ends.

Phase 3- Building and deepening loyalty and commitment OR "Married but looking."

Every Gottman therapist understands that trust is fundamental. Trust is the bedrock of all human intimate relationships. Trust never sleeps.

If a couple can emerge from the developmental crisis of phase 2, with an abiding mutual trust, they may find that, because limerence has faded, and novelty is sparse, they may need support from science-based couples therapy to help them to re-affirm their mutual commitment and loyalty.

But if the relational trust is weakly established in phase 2, the couple knows it. They may retreat into social media to find a "better deal" to satisfy whatever needs they feel remain neglected in their current relationship.

This third phase of love is about a couple either cherishing each other and nurturing gratitude for what they have with their partner or nurturing resentment for what they think is missing. John Gottman

The critical importance of relationship "investments"

John Gottman tips his hat to researcher Carol Rusbult who carefully studied the science of marital commitment.

Dr. Rusbult described the essential factor in maintaining commitment in marriage as a notion she called "investments."

Rusbult defines "investments" as the couple's inventory of both material (extrinsic) and psychological (intrinsic) resources.

Extrinsic investments refer to the relational joys brought into one's life, fond memories, a shared sense of struggle, children, shared family, and friends. Intrinsic investments can be considered "direct personal investment"; the most important of which are human attention, time, and intimacy. But it also often includes material goods and other assets.

As you can see human attention, intimacy, and time, are the building blocks of fond memories, and shared new experiences are, at the very least, a large subset of fond memories. We create opportunities for self-expansion for our partners in direct proportion to the quality and quantity of attention we bestow.

Invest in quality time and attention; for yourself, for your partner, and for the relationship.

The importance of self-expansion and playfulness

Take a careful look at your established routines and familiar joint activities. Talk about avoiding the familiar and agree to try something new. Even if it doesn't appeal to both of you, it is, at least, a neutral new experience. While during COVID, routines have value; it is the familiarity and sameness that sap the honeymoon feelings. Shared novelty within these routines can help restore these feelings.

You will not hear this advice very often but consider setting your novelty bar low, especially at first. Do not try to find the "perfect" experience. Settle for new; the way your love was once new.

Romantic love and self-expansion share the same dopamine and norepinephrine neural pathway. The secret to deeper commitment is to steep your brain with novelty. Your brain on romance had the same neurochemical cascade. When you share a novel experience, you are training your brain toward positive expectancy and deeper commitment.

Play miniature golf together for the first time, plan a new exotic vacation, learn to cook Indian food together, put new art on the walls, rearrange your furniture, etc. Seek novelty and playfulness in both things large and small but especially in small things often.

The neuroscience of self-expansion, it's more play than work

Helen Fisher research describes the dopamine cascade of novelty:

Research shows that novelty (taking risks or trying something new) can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. I'm not just talking about novelty in the bedroom (although that would be a good start). You can get the same effect from sampling a new type of cuisine together or riding the roller coaster at an amusement park. (Helen Fisher)

What are the best ways to go out and create that novelty in marriage?

As you create your own list consider these principles:

novelty in marriage and self-expansion
  • Aim high and aim low. Many couples have too high a bar for novelty. They dismiss many ideas too quickly. Novel experiences do not necessarily have to be over-the-top exciting... just new and different.
  • Challenge routines. Research consistently reveals a hidden secret of marital commitment; couples that eschew ruts and rigid routines and instead, explore new experiences together will access the momentum offered by self-expansion, and deepen their intimate bond.
  • Make date nights a priority. Easier to say than do during COVID. You may have to put on your thing caps and our team put together this great list!
  • Think small things often. Novel experiences can be a renewed focus on "small things often" to delight a partner during COVID. Check out the new podcast Small Things Often from the Gottman Institute. Novelty can be cooking a new dish together, reading aloud, planning your first vacation after the lockdown.
  • Focus on gratitude. It will literally re-wire your brain.
  • Don’t forget self-expansion. Dr. Aron's research suggests that if the feeling of self-expansion could be sustained, so could commitment, and passion.

Self-expansion over time

When you were first dating, you were continuously learning new things about one another. As this arc of early learning grows, you both feel an expansive sense of self. As the attractive qualities and characteristics of your partner become integrated, a shared mutual passion emerges.

Later, as your partner becomes "fully known" to you, the mystery fades, and opportunities for self-expansion opportunities diminish. Passion fades from a flame to an ember.

Research continues to validate something that we have already known. Couples in long-term relationships report lower levels of self-expansion as familiar routine subordinates the excitement of novelty.

How does a tendency toward self-expansion protect your intimate relationship? When your nervous system recognizes your partner as a source of novelty and interesting experiences, the sense of self-expansion which follows becomes a powerful foundation that promotes commitment in your relationship while also supporting the development of your best self.

In Dr. Aron's research, couples who experienced novel experiences together reported a higher level of marital satisfaction.

Ways to create novelty and nurture self-expansion

  • Change your environment, and environmental stimulus.
  • Change the music you listen to, the art on your walls, the layout of your furniture, the dishes you eat on—make some simple swaps to refresh your routines and keep boredom at bay.
  • Drive through a different, nearby neighborhood take advantage of that time to have an uninterrupted conversation, to listen to a podcast or to get some landscaping inspiration from your neighbors!
  • Take a walk in nature, don't just visit a park, got to an arboretum. Visit a nearby historical site that you never got around to exploring. Take a walking tour around a local university.
  • Don't drive, bike or walk together to nearby attractions.
  • Do nothing together shamelessly in public.
  • Read an online menu slowly together and with care then order indulgent curbside pickup from a local restaurant.
  • Take an online course together. Or teach each other something you are good at.

Why novelty is more important than ever – shake things up with your partner!

One of the reasons novelty is so important during this pandemic is that the comfort we often take as a couple with predictable routines too often becomes oppressive.

When you were new as a couple, there were no routines, only possibilities.

Self-expansion harkens back to these playful, early romantic days. The dopamine hit from engaging in self-actualizing novelty with your partner harkens your mind back to a simpler, more ardent time. In other words, novelty can activate precisely the same circuitry as romantic love.

Final thoughts about self-expansion, and novelty in marriage

When couples have trust, and commitment, self-expansion through novelty can be achieved once more. In good, intensive couples therapy, partners learn to create novelty by breaking out of stubborn and repetitive ways of relating. Science-based couples therapy can offer a new way to use language as a tool in ways they never have before.

Novelty is a new context for the familiar...and the invigorating sense of self-expansion helps couples to achieve emotional flexibility. Trusting couples often see themselves having a transcendent bond that does not weaken, even as circumstances may continue to confront and challenge us.


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Ready for a change in your relationship?

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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