Greater self-expansion within romantic relationships linked to lower levels of depression symptoms

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Self-expansion is associated with less susceptibility to depression symptoms, according to new research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. The findings provide evidence that sharing novel and challenging experiences with one’s romantic partner can have robust mental health benefits.

Healthy romantic relationships are known to contribute to psychological well-being. The authors of the current research were interested in examining whether self-expansion was one pathway that could help explain the positive effects of a good relationship.

“I work at a primarily undergraduate institution that emphasizes student research. So, the kernel of the idea was rooted in my work with students who are mostly interested in clinical psychological research topics, such as body image and depression,” said lead researcher Kevin P. McIntyre (@openstatslab), an associate professor of psychology at Trinity University

“I often try to incorporate their interests into my own line of work which focuses on the intersection of romantic relationships and self and identity. So, my students and I ran a few pilot studies that showed a lot of promise for the idea that relational self-expansion was associated with reduced depression symptoms. After this initial work, my collaborators and I developed a series of studies to examine this idea in depth.”

Self-expansion refers to the process of adding positive content to one’s self-concept by engaging in new, challenging and interesting activities. Previous research has demonstrated that individuals whose relationships provide greater self-expansion tend experience heightened relationship quality.

“Self-expansion seems to be an essential component of positive relationships,” McIntyre explained. “Couples who experience self-expansion report that they are more satisfied and committed to their relationship, and seem to derive individual benefits as well, such as enhanced self-esteem. We wanted to build on this prior work to examine whether these benefits helped reduce depression symptoms.”

The researchers recruited a sample of 224 men and 183 women who were in romantic relationships from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform and had them complete a validated measure of depression symptoms. To assess self-expansion, the participants responded to questions such as “How much does your partner help to expand your sense of the kind of person you are?”, “How much has knowing your partner made you a better person?”, and “How much do you see your partner as a way to expand your own capabilities?”

The researchers found that higher levels of self-expansion were associated with fewer depressive symptoms. However, McIntyre and his team noted that the association could be the result of other factors that influence both self-expansion and depressive symptoms.

In a second study of 106 men and 97 women, the researchers controlled for demographic variables, dysfunctional attitudes, major stressors (such as being fired from work), and self-concept clarity. Importantly, the relationship between self-expansion and depression symptoms remained significant even after accounting for these factors.

To better understand whether day-to-day variations in self-expansion were related to changes in depression symptoms, McIntyre and his colleagues conducted a third study with 100 romantic couples from the United Kingdom. The couples, who had been in a relationship for at least three months, completed a 15-minute online survey every day for 14 consecutive days.

The researchers found that participants tended to report lower than typical depression symptoms on days in which they reported higher than typical self-expansion.

For their fourth and final study, the researchers tracked 109 couples from the Austin, Texas, area over the course of nine months. (Only participants who were continuously involved with the same partner for the duration of the study were included.) They found that increases in self-expansion over time were associated with lower levels of depression.

“People should look for opportunities in their lives to experience self-expansion,” McIntyre told PsyPost. “This means looking for novelty, excitement, and challenge. For example, rather than going to the same restaurant on date night, try someplace new. Learn new skills with your partner, such as by taking dancing lessons or cooking classes. If you like hiking, try going to a different park or taking a different trail. Switch up your tendencies every now and again. These things don’t have to be complicated or expensive to reap the benefits.”

But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.

“Our research was correlational, so we can’t make definitive conclusions about cause and effect,” McIntyre explained. We did conduct longitudinal research, which provided relatively strong support for the idea that self-expansion is associated with subsequent reductions in depression symptoms. Another caveat is that our research did not study individuals who were clinically diagnosed as depressed. So, we can’t say whether self-expansion could provide a therapeutic benefit for people with clinical levels of depression.”

“It can be really tempting to stick with the safe and comfortable, especially in these difficult times,” he added. “COVID has been rough on everyone and there is evidence that individuals’ mental health suffered during this time. Our research suggests that people should look for ways to add new positive aspects to their sense of self.”

The study, “Romantic Relationships and Mental Health: Investigating the Role of Self-Expansion on Depression Symptoms“, was authored by Kevin P. McIntyre, Brent A. Mattingly, Sarah C. E. Stanton, Xiaomeng Xu, Timothy J. Loving, and Gary W. Lewandowski.



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