But it may not be feelings of love or loyalty that keep couples together. Instead, scientists speculate that your level of commitment may depend on how much a partner enhances your life and broadens your horizons — a concept that Arthur Aron, a psychologist and relationship researcher at Stony Brook University, calls “self-expansion.”
To measure this quality, couples are asked a series of questions: How much does your partner provide a source of exciting experiences? How much has knowing your partner made you a better person? How much do you see your partner as a way to expand your own capabilities?
The Stony Brook researchers conducted experiments using activities that stimulated self-expansion. Some couples were given mundane tasks, while others took part in a silly exercise in which they were tied together and asked to crawl on mats, pushing a foam cylinder with their heads. The study was rigged so the couples failed the time limit on the first two tries, but just barely made it on the third, resulting in much celebration.
Couples were given relationship tests before and after the experiment. Those who had taken part in the challenging activity posted greater increases in love and relationship satisfaction than those who had not experienced victory together.
Now the researchers are embarking on a series of studies to measure how self-expansion influences a relationship. They theorize that couples who explore new places and try new things will tap into feelings of self-expansion, lifting their level of commitment.
“We enter relationships because the other person becomes part of ourselves, and that expands us,” Dr. Aron said. “That’s why people who fall in love stay up all night talking and it feels really exciting. We think couples can get some of that back by doing challenging and exciting things together.” From Tara Parker-Pope, NYT Wellness Blog & New Book: