If you’ve been in relationships before, you know that one of the things that happens is that you change because of it. That’s inevitable. The question is, how do you change, and is it a good thing or not so good? And what do you do if the change is negative?
There is a new psychological model which looks at this, and is helpful for thinking about how we are in relationships, and what we might be looking for. The model is two dimensional. The first dimension is about expansion and contraction. The second dimension concerns new positive or negative traits. From these two dimensions, there are four different ways that a relationship can change us:
Positive ways we can be changed (self-concept improvement – personal growth):
- Self-expansion – intimacy and support creates self-expansion and discovery – learning new things about ourselves.
- Self-pruning – intimacy and support enhances our own willingness to look at things that might still be works in progress, and be encouraged to tackle them.
Negative ways we can be changed (self-concept degradation – personal decrease):
- Self-contraction – conflict, tension, or implicit and/or explicit demands from our partner contracts us. We sacrifice, stop doing things we enjoy, or that are good for us. We stop expressing all of who we are.
- Self-adulteration – conflict and tension creates situations where we start expressing parts of ourselves that are hurtful to ourselves and/or to our partner.
You might have been in relationships where you can see either of these patterns happening. When a relationship allows for self-concept improvement, the relationship itself grows and becomes greatly enhanced, as the individual lives of each partner is enhanced (which then enhances the relationship yet again – a virtuous cycle.) When a relationship creates self-concept degradation, the relationship suffers badly, as does each partner (a vicious cycle.) There may also be a mix – some times when there is self-concept improvement, and other times when there is self-concept degradation. But to really have a long-lasting healthy, happy relationship, it is important that it be a space that facilitates and encourages self-concept improvement for both partners.
What do you do if you notice that you are in a relationship that involves self-concept degradation? First, ask why this degradation (either self-contraction or self-adulteration) happened. Was it by explicit demand from your partner, or was it something you changed because you thought your partner wouldn’t like it? Do you get so triggered in your relationship that you act in ways that you know are hurtful (to yourself or your partner) but you don’t know how to change it?
This is something that can be fixed, if both partners are willing to learn key skills to handle their triggers, be self-responsible, and communicate without criticism, blame, or defensiveness. You can have a relationship full of self-concept improvement, where you don’t have to cut any parts of yourself off, and you can learn new things about yourself, and grow for your own sake, and enhance the relationship as a result.