The Key to Keeping The Sexual Spark Alive: The Importance of Self-Expansion

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Maintaining a vibrant and fulfilling sexual relationship requires effort, communication, and a deep understanding of each other’s needs and desires. Over time, couples often report declines in their level of sexual desire for one another [1] and many seek ways to keep “the spark” or passion alive in their relationships [2].

As discussed in previous posts, one of the big reasons why desire declines is the Coolidge Effect (i.e., an unmet need for sexual novelty). Maintaining desire also has a lot to do with maintaining physical attraction and emotional connection to our partners. But there’s another often overlooked but equally important factor we should acknowledge: self-expansion. In this blog, we’ll delve into the significance of self-expansion in keeping sexual relationships thriving.

What is Self-Expansion?

Self-expansion, a concept proposed by psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron, refers to the idea of individuals seeking to broaden their identity, experiences, and capabilities through relationships with others [3]. It involves stepping out of one’s comfort zone, trying new things, and continuously evolving as individuals within the context of a partnership. To be clear, self-expansion is about more than mere novelty; it’s about growing our sense of self and understanding of who we are.

The Role of Self-Expansion in Sexual Relationships

In the context of sexual relationships, self-expansion plays a pivotal role in maintaining excitement, passion, and connection over time. Aron and Aron explained that our relationships with others provide unique opportunities for us to learn more about ourselves and broaden our perspectives [3]. This expansion within relationships can have a variety of positive implications for romantic relationships. Here are some examples of how self-expansion can potentially benefit relationships:

  1. Preventing Routines and Predictability: One of the biggest challenges in long-term relationships is the tendency for routines to set in, leading to predictability and boredom. In her book Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel explains how, over time, couples tend to become more stable, predictable, comfortable, and emotionally close; but, at the same time, this closeness and stability can stifle desire [2]. Self-expansion, on the other hand, encourages couples to explore new activities, hobbies, and adventures together, injecting novelty and spontaneity into their sexual experiences.
  2. Fostering Growth and Development: Engaging in activities that involve self-expansion can lead to personal growth and development. Whether it’s learning a new skill, pursuing shared interests, trying something new together, or setting mutual goals, couples can bond over their journey of self-improvement, strengthening their emotional connection and intimacy in the process. For example, across three studies of individuals in committed relationships, researchers reported that having opportunities for expansion within their relationship was related to relationship commitment [4].
  3. Enhancing Attraction and Desire: Stepping outside of familiar roles and exploring new facets of oneself can reignite attraction and desire within a relationship. For example, researchers have reported that engaging in self-expanding activities with a partner is related to improved sexual desire and that this increased desire results in more relationship satisfaction [5]. When individuals continuously evolve and surprise each other with their capabilities and interests, it keeps the spark alive and prevents stagnation in the bedroom. As Perel has suggested, seeing a partner in a new light, and recognizing them as someone unique and distinct from the self creates opportunities for yearning and desire [2].
  4. Deepening Emotional Intimacy: Self-expansion is not just about trying new activities; it’s also about deepening emotional intimacy by sharing vulnerabilities, dreams, and aspirations. Couples who engage in self-expansion together might communicate more openly, empathize with each other’s experiences, and forge a stronger emotional bond, which translates into a more fulfilling sexual connection.

Practical Ways to Incorporate Self-Expansion into Your Relationship

Now that we understand the importance of self-expansion in keeping sexual relationships alive, let’s explore some practical ways to integrate it into your partnership:

Practical Ways to Incorporate Self-Expansion into Your Relationship

  1. Try New Activities Together: Whether it’s taking a cooking class, learning a new language, or embarking on outdoor adventures, explore activities that push both of you out of your comfort zones and foster growth. Couples might also want to explore each other’s fantasies, bring a new toy into the bedroom, or try new ways of seducing and pleasuring one another.
  2. Set Mutual Goals: Identify shared goals or aspirations, whether they’re related to career, fitness, or personal development, and work toward them as a team. In this way, the two of you can work towards expanding yourselves independently or as a team. Supporting each other’s ambitions creates a sense of unity and strengthens your bond.
  3. Prioritize Communication: Make time for meaningful conversations where you can discuss your hopes, fears, and dreams openly. Being vulnerable with each other deepens your emotional connection and builds trust. A big part of self-expansion in relationships involves sharing perspectives, knowledge, ideas, and integrating these into your self-concept. It is quite possible that you and your partner have different viewpoint on what would make you feel sexually alive and vibrant. By openly communicating what’s important, what you want, and what you hope to explore, this creates the opportunity for better understanding one another and bringing you one step closer to potentially exploring some of these desires (see Dr. Lehmiller’s book “Tell Me What You Want” for tips on how to have these conversations).
  4. Embrace Spontaneity: Break free from routines and embrace spontaneity in your relationship. Surprise your partner with spontaneous date nights, overnight or weekend getaways, or intimate gestures to keep the excitement alive. Gestures can be big or small and don’t have to cost much money, but find ways to break out of your typical patterns. Part of the reason we often stick to patterns and routines is that we know the likely outcomes, so it may feel a little awkward or vulnerable to try to step outside of them. However, breaking this routine might be exactly what your sex life needs to reach new heights!
  5. Celebrate Each Other’s Individuality: Encourage each other to pursue individual interests and hobbies outside of the relationship. Celebrate each other’s achievements and support personal growth, knowing that it enriches your partnership as well. Researchers have demonstrated that recognizing and celebrating your partner’s “otherness” is associated with increased sexual desire in both casual and committed relationships [1].

Main Takeaways

In the journey of maintaining a fulfilling sexual relationship, self-expansion emerges as a powerful tool that can keep the flames of passion burning. By embracing new experiences, nurturing personal growth, and deepening emotional intimacy, couples can ensure that their connection remains vibrant, exciting, and deeply satisfying over time. So dare to step out of your comfort zone, explore the unknown, and allow self-expansion to become the fuel that allows passion to bloom!

References:

[1] Prekatsounaki, S., Janssen, E., & Enzlin, P. (2019). In search of desire: The role of intimacy, celebrated otherness, and object-of-desire affirmation in sexual desire in women. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 45(5), 414–423. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2018.1549633

[2] Perel, E. (2007). Mating in captivity: unlocking erotic intelligence (1st Harper pbk.). Harper.

[3] Aron, Arthur, & Aron, Elaine (1986). Love and the expansion of self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. Hemisphere Pub. Corp.

[4] Hughes, E. K., Slotter, E. B., & Emery, L. F. (2023). Expanding me, loving us: self-expansion preferences, experiences, and romantic relationship commitment. Self and Identity, 22(2), 227–246. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2022.2074092

[5] Muise, A., Harasymchuk, C., Day, L. C., Bacev-Giles, C., Gere, J., & Impett, E. A. (2019). Broadening your horizons: Self-expanding activities promote desire and satisfaction in established romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(2), 237–258. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000148

Want to learn more about Sex and Psychology? Click here for more from the blog or here to listen to the podcast. Follow Sex and Psychology on Facebook, Twitter (@JustinLehmiller), or Reddit to receive updates. You can also follow Dr. Lehmiller on YouTube and Instagram.

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