As we grow into our 20’s and 30’s, our identities will become more and more an eclectic mix of the thoughts, beliefs, and interactions we take in. We could slowly morph into runners, vegans, or even worse…hipsters (gasp!).
However we turn out, one thing is for certain: our identities are especially malleable when it comes to romantic relationships. This is because investment into a new relationship can help us achieve what researchers call “self-expansion”:
"The self-expansion model is based on two key principles. The first is that humans have a primary motivation to self expand. The second principle is that individuals often achieve self-expansion through close relationships which allow the inclusion of the other in the self." - Wikipedia
Or in English, a new relationship helps expand our sense of who we are — we now have an “other half” in our self-concept. And this is a good thing because we’re able to greatly expand our selves through our partner. We’re essentially opening ourselves up by investing time into someone else’s perceptions, habits and beliefs.
Editor of The Science of Us Melissa Dahl writes about break ups:
When you first start dating someone, one of the most exciting parts of all the newness is the way they expand your world, simply by being themselves. Suddenly, you’re exposed to an unfamiliar culture or language, or you find you now know and care a lot more than you used to about fine wine, or tasting menus.
Or to draw from personal experience — deeper appreciation for good food (Don’t worry Pancho Villa, I still love your cheap tacos!).
But there’s a dark side to this as well. As with any investment, the more we put into it, the more we’re afraid to lose it. This could become a negative influence through escalation of commitment, whereby we continue to pick the negative outcomes because they’re in alignment with decisions and actions previously made. Just like the game of Jenga, when the relationship tower falls apart so does our self-concept. We lose a very real part of ourselves. But we can rebuild:
Happily, this feeling also helps point to a way out of the gloom: Focus on restoring your self-concept, either by doing the things you loved and lost sight of during your relationship, or by trying out brand-new hobbies.
This is why a support network is important amongst friends. They can help us take our minds off of the relationship and direct it away from the heartbreak. Once we’ve mended the part of our self-concept that we lost, we can work on pursuing self-expansion again.