Love as the expansion of the self

One of the most compelling explanations I have come across recently is given in Chapter 1, ‘Love as Expansion of the Self’ in the book The New Psychology Of Love, Second Edition (2019), as edited by Robert J. and Karin Sternberg. In that first chapter, researchers Arthur Aron and Jennifer M. Tomlinson explain how the self-expansion model, developed by Aron himself in the 1980s, helps people understand why and how people might choose their partners. This is, I believe, a must-reading for any coach or counselor working with singles. My cursory review of the model follows.

The self-expansion model has two key principles:

pink panther

Motivational Principle
The motivational principle posits that people seek to expand their potential efficacy and increase their ability to accomplish goals. That fundamental human motive is describable as exploration, effectance, self-improvement, curiosity, competence, or a broadening of one’s perspective.

I like to corral all that as behaviors of self-preservation.

pink panther & clouseau

Inclusion-of-other-in-the-self Principle
The inclusion-of-other-in-the-self principle posits that one way people seek to expand the self is through close relationships, because in a close relationship the other’s resources, perspectives, and identities are experienced − to a much more intensive extent − as one’s own.

I like to corral all that as behaviors of gaining capacity or power, and not the least in support of self-preservation.

What can that tell us in terms of pair-bonding?

Liking and Similarity come First

Many studies on the predictors of initial interpersonal attraction, say researchers Aaron and Tomlinson, have documented the importance of reciprocal liking, desirable characteristics, and seeing the other as similar. Academics suggest that perceptions about how others feel about one’s self are crucial in deciding with whom to engage in a relationship.

“What I want from you is you to want me.”

Most Anyone

The circumstances of reciprocal liking and similarity then suggest a relationship, and thus expansion is likely.

A pertinent question is this: “Do we encounter enough similarities that will allow us to talk to each other for decades without constantly rubbing off on each other the wrong way? Is there enough of a common ground which will not easily turn to quicksand − such as perhaps devotion to dogmatic religion or ideology?”

Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my favorite philosophers, pointed out that over the many decades in marriage, the most time spent together is not on making love but on talking. That, to Nietzsche, makes the friendship between partners so essential.

Desirable characteristics are desirable at least in part because they are qualities that would expand the self if one had a relationship with that person.

As a valuable takeaway, research has also shown that in most common situations of falling in love, the spark was that a desirable mate did something that indicated s/he liked the other’s self.

Opposites Attract, or Not

Now, say researchers, they found that the self-expansion model also points out some situations where, after reciprocal liking and similarity are established and a relationship seems likely, opposites might attract. Masculinity and femininity are the most common opposites, such that we might easily take them for granted. And while the attraction between or complementarity of masculinity and femininity goes a long way, it alone will not always be enough to provide for fascination.

That is, after liking and similarity make a relationship feasible, people look past the issue of gender differences for additional opposites. And at this stage of the negotiation between promising singles, I may add, compatibility might now play a role.

A pertinent question is: “Will all the opposites between us fascinate and draw us together or will they repel and keep us too far apart?” “If you are devoted to your business and will travel a whole lot, and I am inclined to raise a bunch of kids in a close-knit family, we might not make it in spite of liking each other and being both card-carrying Republicans (or Democrats for that matter).”

Similarities do not fascinate us, they comfort if not eventually bore us. So we need all in an interpersonal relationship: liking, comfort, and fascination. Is that not worthy of being called real love, or true love after it has lasted?

Next, read ABCs of Love –
8. Similarities as well as Opposites Attract


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