Trinity University psychologist examines ways that relationships affect one’s sense of self
by Susie P. Gonzalez
When people find romance, does the relationship affect their own personality? Trinity University psychologist Kevin McIntyre has examined that question in detail, taking a new look at the issue of “for better or worse” within couples.
His findings have been published in a paper called “When ‘we’ changes ‘me’: The two-dimensional model of relational self-change and relationship outcomes” in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships and recently featured on the journal’s podcast, “Relationship Matters.”
McIntyre and two collaborators, Brent Mattingly of Ursinus College and Gary Lewandowski of Monmouth University, developed a new model to look at four different ways people can change once they enter into romantic relationships. The field within psychology is known as “close relationships research” and could also apply friendships, although McIntyre focused on romantic relationships.
“It’s not just ‘you’ any more, but you and your partner,” McIntyre said, explaining that people often take on positive or negative traits in response to their partner but they also can lose positive or negative traits.
For example, dating couples might try new restaurants or take dancing lessons. “Having these experiences doesn’t just change how we think of our partner, but they also change how we think about ourselves,” he said. The changes can be abstract, such as when people gain self-esteem by being with their partner, or concrete, such as when people gain access to a car or travel in higher social strata and thus feel positive changes to their sense of self.
On the flip side, however, a person can change for the worse as a result of their relationship too. Perhaps a person’s partner is unfaithful, and as a result they feel foolish and betrayed.
Relationships can also remove traits from a person’s sense of self. An insecure person might have a partner who helps him or her overcome that feeling and, as a result, becomes more confident. Conversely, a person whose partner wants him or her to stop associating with certain friends may lose what used to be a positive trait.
Another way to look at these qualities is through the direction of self-change, McIntyre and his colleagues state. Adding or subtracting a positive or negative trait would fall into one of four categories:
Most people are familiar with self-expansion, McIntyre said, because they are usually eager to add a positive trait with a loved one. “Novelty and challenge are the hallmarks of self-expansion. Self-expansion people will learn new skills, go out to eat at a new restaurant or try those salsa dancing lessons. If you don’t expand, it creates boredom.”
To explain self-pruning, McIntyre’s example is a partner who convinces and helps you to quit smoking. Related to self-pruning is something psychologists study called “the Michelangelo phenomenon” in which partners chip away bad qualities from each other, sculpting a beautiful figure in the process.
McIntyre’s findings were based in part upon responses by 55 Trinity University faculty and staff members who responded in 2013 to a Tiger Talk list serve questionnaire, and the data was collected by two psychology students who recently graduated, Matthew Peebles and Lavinia Bendandi.
Susie P. Gonzalez, director of public and media relations, can be reached at susie.gonzalez [at] trinity.edu.