As part of a “Sustainable Life” guide to a “healthier, happier 2011” the Times has published a piece headed, “The Happy Marriage Is the ‘Me’ Marriage”.

Really? Yes, really, says Tara Parker-Pope.

The notion that the best marriages are those that bring satisfaction to the individual may seem counterintuitive. After all, isn’t marriage supposed to be about putting the relationship first?

Too right it’s counter-intuitive. And it doesn’t help to decorate this idea with a beautiful metaphor:

Caryl Rusbult, a researcher at Vrije University in Amsterdam who died last January, called it the “Michelangelo effect,” referring to the manner in which close partners “sculpt” each other in ways that help each of them attain valued goals.

More forthrightly, Dr. Aron and Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., a professor at Monmouth University in New Jersey, talk about spouses using each other for “self-expansion”. They say:

“Research shows that the more self-expansion people experience from their partner, the more committed and satisfied they are in the relationship.”

Are they, indeed? Can there be room in one marriage for two endlessly expanding selves? One is beginning to thoroughly dislike this theory, even though, from a different perspective, the examples given are common sense:

The concept explains why people are delighted when dates treat them to new experiences, like a weekend away. But self-expansion isn’t just about exotic experiences. Individuals experience personal growth through their partners in big and small ways. It happens when they introduce new friends, or casually talk about a new restaurant or a fascinating story in the news.

Over time, the personal gains from lasting relationships are often subtle. Having a partner who is funny or creative adds something new to someone who isn’t. A partner who is an active community volunteer creates new social opportunities for a spouse who spends long hours at work.

Additional research suggests that spouses eventually adopt the traits of the other — and become slower to distinguish differences between them, or slower to remember which skills belong to which spouse.

Yes, people ought to “grow” emotionally, socially and in every way through committing themselves in marriage, or through a genuine friendship. They are enriched by the good in each other. But in a sound relationship model that is because their prime motivation is to do good to the other, not to oneself.

What the experts quoted in this article do is turn things upside down, by making the by-product of love into the goal of something that is not love, or rather is self-love.

“If you’re seeking self-growth and obtain it from your partner, then that puts your partner in a pretty important position,” he explains. “And being able to help your partner’s self-expansion would be pretty pleasing to yourself.”

Self-expansion is not good in itself. Only ethically good growth is good, and spouses who don’t understand that would be more likely to wind up in a jungle of rank egotism than in a happy, lasting marriage. One question Dr Lewandowski asks couples is: How much has knowing your partner made you a better person?

But what does he mean by “better”? Without knowing that, it would be unwise to follow his advice, would it not?

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet