Dear Researcher, 

My boyfriend and I have been together for two years now, and still, I love him a lot; but, I can’t help but feel like we’ve lost our spark! We’re just so far past the honeymoon phase that it seems like everything in our relationship is predictable and monotonous. I do not want to break up with him, but I know I can’t just let my relationship keep feeling this dull. What can I do?!

Dear motivated girlfriend,

I think a lot of people have felt the way you are feeling right now. Do you ever feel like your relationship is boring? Uninteresting? Predictable? Do you crave some spontaneity to bring new life into your relationship? Well, there is a psychological reason for that! Research on self-expansion in relationships demonstrates that when couples engage in novel activities together, it boosts their security in their partner and relationship, ultimately increasing relationship satisfaction (1). 

One experiment used two ways of seeing if novel activities led to self-expansion. First, they had a manipulation where partners had to recall times they participated in a new activity together and report on their feelings of growth and security during that recalled experience (1). The second manipulation had groups of couples either participate in a mundane task or a novel task and then report on their feelings of growth and security as a product of the task (1). The results of this study suggest that when you feel “stuck” in your relationship or insecure about the dependability of your relationship, you should try out one of these games with your partner, and maybe your negative feelings will start to go away!

Through an analysis of the literature on self-expansion Mattingly and Lewandowski (2014) explain that self-expansion occurs because individuals are motivated to expand their sense of self by acquiring new identities, developing new perspectives, enhancing capabilities, and gaining resources (3). The study also identifies the benefits of couples engaging in self-expanding activities where they can lead to partners being less likely to cheat, less attention to alternatives, less boredom, more satisfaction, more commitment, and more self-concept growth (3). So, if you ever feel like you and your partner are drifting apart, or you’ve lost your spark, go try something new together! Maybe go to a cooking class, go on a hike, travel to a new place, almost anything neither of you has ever done before could work!

However, even though new challenging activities may be pathways for self-expansion in relationships, it’s important to make sure the task you’re engaging in isn’t too hard. Research on relational self-expansion highlights how flow is connected to the amount of self-expansion that can occur (2). One line of research used a combination of five studies that measured how couples were able to self-expand after engaging in a self-expanding task with varying levels of difficulty (2). Flow theory highlights that there is an optimal level of challenge in self-expanding tasks to allow them to result in self-expansion that relates to the skill level of the individuals and the level of difficulty of a task (2). 

If an activity is too easy, it won’t provide opportunities for discovery and growth but, if a task is too hard, then it may lead to more frustration than excitement towards the task. For example, passing a football back and forth –even if you have never done it before– is too easy of a task to result in self-expansion because it does not really involve any measure of discovery and collective problem-solving. However, a task like going free-hand rock climbing off the side of a cliff with no previous experience is an activity that is too difficult to result in self-expansion because, during the activity, you’re probably more concerned about your safety and well-being than having fun with your partner. So, next time you try to use a self-expanding activity to make your relationship stronger and more satisfying, make sure that it isn’t too difficult! 

I hope this helped!

References

Cortes, K., Britton, E., Holmes, J. G., & Scholer, A. A. (2020). Our adventures make me feel secure: Novel activities boost relationship satisfaction through felt security. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 89, 103992. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2020.103992

Graham, J. M., & Harf, M. R. (2014). Self-expansion and flow: The roles of challenge, skill, affect, and activation. Personal Relationships, 22(1), 45-64. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12062

Mattingly, B. A., & Lewandowski, G. W. (2014). Broadening horizons: Self-Expansion in relational and non-relational contexts. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8(1), 30-40. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12080

4 Replies to “How can I reignite the spark in my relationship?

  1. I love that you set boundaries for what activities can contribute to self-expansion because I always wonder how “novel” the activities should be in order to be effective. I’m really interesting to see if one person familiarizes themself with the activity faster than their partner, is that detrimental to relationship satisfaction? I was once told by my grammar teacher (don’t ask me why grammar teacher) that don’t bring your girlfriend to the archery range because even though archery is a novel activity for most of people, but men usually learn faster than women if both of them have zero experience. Due to some technical reason, women tend to lose interest. However, that’s just a personal anecdote. I hope if there’s any research that support this idea

  2. I love how you expanded on the limitations of self-expansion tasks. I wonder, besides the level of difficulty, whether individual familiarity would moderate the effects of engaging in self-expanding tasks together as a couple. For example, if an individual has played a certain game before but their partner has not (let’s say, the game is at an appropriate difficulty level). Would the individual who had engaged with the game before enjoy less benefit from doing this activity with their partner compared to the other? What if this individual is excited about showing this to their partner? Would it have the opposite effect? Does the activity itself have to be “novel,” or does the condition of playing with their partner for the first time make it a novel experience?

  3. I thought this was a great post! It got me thinking – Lewandowski claims that self-expansion can occur by “acquiring new identities, developing new perspectives, [and] enhancing capabilities.” I’ve often seen videos online where one relationship partner agrees to do their significant other’s favorite activities as a date. For example, a partner may agree to go to a sports bar and play golf with their partner even though it is not something they particularly like or do regularly. Would this result in similar self-expansion and improved relationship quality? By developing new perspectives on your partner’s hobbies, I would think that you might come to feel closer to them. It makes me wonder whether an activity has to be novel for both partners or whether engaging in a task one partner does not regularly participate in brings about enough novelty and support to be an effective way of boosting that relationship spark.

  4. Awesome post! I find the point about the level of difficulty of the task to be interesting and I wonder how this would affect a couple if a task was much too difficult for one person but too easy for the other or maybe a perfect difficulty. Would this still provide some benefit to the couple, or will it make the person struggling feel like they are less than their partner? How do you make sure that the task is suitable for both individuals?

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