Jennifer Tomlinson, Colgate University – Activities With Your Partner

Which activities are best for a night out with your partner?

Jennifer Tomlinson, assistant professor of psychology at Colgate University, explains how engagement in a shared activity can boost your relationship.

My research program is designed to understand the ways in which relationship partners can encourage one another to seek out opportunities for personal growth, and how this can benefit relationships and health. I also seek to understand how partners can maintain healthy relationships by communicating positive regard and finding optimal levels of idealization (when one perceives a partner to view oneself slightly more positively than one sees oneself). Students in my lab will be exposed to a variety of research methods (including experimental, longitudinal, physiological, and observational) and consider relationship processes in both younger and older adults.

Activities With Your Partner

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Popular wisdom tells us that families who play together stay together. Previous research finds that couples who do “exciting” activities together have happier relationships than couples who do “pleasant” activities. But what kinds of things does that really mean?

Engagement in a shared activity is called self-expansion. Other studies focused on shared activities that get your heart rate going – like rollerblading together or learning to paddle board. Such activities might help on a first date, but might not matter in ongoing relationships. We asked, “Is physical arousal truly necessary to gain benefits from shared activities?”

Our instinct was that joint experiences that are both “fun and interesting” create a stronger bond than those that are simply strenuous. We designed four studies to find out.

First, we had married couples and friend pairs do tasks designed to be either “fun and interesting” or “physically arousing.” Results showed that people’s perceptions of self-expansion, and not arousal, predicted both relationship and individual benefits. Meaning, what’s important is enjoying something together – no matter if it’s a board game or bungee jumping.

Next, we wanted to see what people do in their everyday lives. We asked two large groups of people to think about the activities that they did in the past week with either their spouse or their closest friend. What mattered most? People’s perceptions of how much fun they had together—not their active heart rates.

Across four studies, our research team showed that fun, self-expanding activities can solidify your relationship. They can help you grow as a person and to associate that growth with your activity partner.  It doesn’t matter if the activity is physically demanding. So, when you’re planning your next date night, opt for activities that both you and your partner know you’ll enjoy – even if that involves sitting down and learning how to paint.

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