Love Changes Us: Examining Relationships

Being in a relationship, says Professor Brent Mattingly, can alter us for better, and, for worse.

Mattingly, an Assistant Professor of Psychology, researches romantic relationships and how they affect personal growth. “I examine how relationships – primarily romantic relationships – are capable of influencing our sense of who we are as people,” says Mattingly, who has an office in Thomas Hall. “Relationships can alter our identities, perspectives, and capabilities in a way that we would consider ourselves a “changed person” because of the relationship. 

Marriage, as an example, has offered him the opportunity to visit places he had never been, and experience new cuisines and cultures. “I have generally become more open-minded,” says Mattingly.  “Scientifically speaking, my relationship with my wife has led me to add positive attributes to my self-concept.  Ultimately, I have become a better person by being with her.”

His research shows that relationships can lead us to gain or lose aspects of our self-concepts, he says, and these aspects can be positive or negative. “There are four ways in which relationships alter who we are,” says Mattingly. “We can gain positive aspects, we can lose positive aspects, we can gain negative aspects, and we can lose negative aspects.  When we gain positive aspects, we call this self-expansion; when we lose positive aspects, we call this self-contraction.  When we gain negative aspects, we call this self-adulteration; when we lose negative aspects, we call this self-pruning.”

In general, self-expansion and self-pruning are beneficial for relationships, whereas self-contraction and self-adulteration are harmful, says Mattingly. “When individuals experience self-expansion or self-pruning, their relationships tend to be of higher quality, more stable, and filled with greater love.  However, when individuals experience self-contraction or self-adulteration, their relationships are of poorer quality and more prone to negative relationship behaviors like infidelity.” 

The ability for relationships to alter a person’s sense of self is not limited to the early stages of the relationship like one might suspect, he says. “In one study, my colleagues and I followed individuals in well-established relationships over a six-week span – in fact, about half of the people in our study were married.  We found that over that span, individuals who experienced self-expansion or self-pruning actually perceived their relationships improving, whereas those who experienced self-contraction or self-adulteration perceived their relationships weakening somewhat.  I think these results really speak to the constant influence our relationships have in affecting who we are, and reinforce the importance of attending to and maintaining our relationships on a continual basis.”

Mattingly has published two peer-reviewed articles on his research, one in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, and the other in the journal Personal Relationships. Several outlets have publicized the research on their websites, such as, Self magazine, and Glamour magazine.

The stability of relationships is partially determined by who we have become in that relationship, says Mattingly. “A relationship may flourish or falter because of how we have individually changed as a result of that relationship, and perhaps less so because the inherent quality of the relationship itself,” he says.  “In other words, the ‘me’ part of the relationship may be just as important as the ‘we’ part.” 

Read more about Mattingly’s research on relationships and the self in the upcoming Ursinus Magazine.