The Relation between Positive Self-Expansion, Negative Self-Expansion, and Relationship Satisfaction: The Moderating Role of Attachment Anxiety
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Introduction: According to self-expansion research, the development of closeness and intimacy in romantic relationships may lead to self-concept change through an incorporation of shared experiences and aspects of romantic others into individuals’ self-concepts, creating an overlap in identities (Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992), which is positively associated with relationship satisfaction (Aron, Norman, Aron, McKenna, & Heyman, 2000). Yet, this self-expansion is defined exclusively as expansion in positive, not negative, ways, termed here as positive self-expansion (PSE). Research describing how more negative experiences of self-expansion may be associated with romantic relationship satisfaction, such as through increases in less healthy behaviors or less ideal characteristics, is limited. Understanding negative self-expansion may help explain how attachment anxiety, which reflects insecurity and fear of abandonment in relationships, is negatively associated with romantic relationship satisfaction (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007), despite the idea that anxious individuals pursue expansion and closeness. It is predicted that attachment anxiety will act as a moderator in the relation between PSE and relationship satisfaction, such that the relation will be weaker among those with higher levels of attachment anxiety. It is predicted that attachment anxiety will act as a moderator in the relation between NSE and relationship satisfaction, such that this relation will be weaker among those with higher levels of attachment anxiety. It is predicted that the inverse correlation between attachment anxiety and relationship satisfaction will be partially mediated by NSE.
Method: 136 undergraduates (77.9% women, n = 106; Mage = 18.99, SD = 1.10) who indicated that they were in serious, exclusive romantic relationships (Mlength = 18.79 months, SD = 14.47) were recruited through the participant pool at a Jesuit university in the Mid-Atlantic. Participants completed the Self-Expansion Questionnaire (SEQ; Lewandowski & Aron, 2002) assessing PSE, the Negative Self-Expansion Questionnaire (SEQ-N), which is a modified version of the SEQ created for the purpose of this study assessing NSE, the Experiences in Close Relationships-Revised Questionnaire (ECR-R; Fraley, Waller, & Brennan, 2000) assessing attachment anxiety, and the Relationship Assessment Scale (RAS; Hendrick, 1988) assessing relationship satisfaction.
Results: We found significant positive relation between PSE and relationship satisfaction, β = 0.47, t(132) = 6.87, p < .001, and attachment anxiety significantly moderated this relation in a different pattern than predicted, β = 0.14, t(132) = 2.08, p = .04, such that the relation between PSE and relationship satisfaction was stronger for those with higher attachment anxiety. We found a significant inverse relation between NSE and relationship satisfaction, β = -0.39, t(132) = -5.14, p < .001, and attachment anxiety significantly moderated this relation in a different pattern than predicted, β = -0.14, t(132) = -2.02, p = .04, such that the relation between NSE and relationship satisfaction was stronger for those with higher attachment anxiety. We also found that NSE partially mediated the relation between attachment anxiety and relationship satisfaction.
Implications: Understanding these associations is important because the well-being of individuals’ intimate relationships plays a central role in their physical and psychological health (Boelen & van den Hout, 2010). College-age students are especially important to study in regards to self-change related to romantic relationships because college is a period full of identity discovery, identity development, and newfound independence (Arnett, 2000). A greater understanding of how PSE and NSE might be related to relationship satisfaction differently as a function of attachment anxiety may inform clinicians about why individuals with higher attachment anxiety may feel less satisfied in their relationships compared to others. These individuals experience a greater decrease in relationship satisfaction as their levels of PSE decrease, consistent with previous research (Aron et al., 2000), and as their levels of NSE increase. It may be that these individuals are experiencing NSE to pull closer to romantic others, as greater intimacy seems to be continuously desired (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007), but this negative growth is associated with lower relationship satisfaction. Interventions should be aimed at raising awareness about the possibility of NSE and finding ways to prevent the incorporation of these aspects into one’s self-concept, as well as increasing ways to incorporate PSE.
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