Romantic relationships are a fundamental part of life, and healthy, loving relationships can lead to some of the greatest joys available in the human experience.
Recent scholarship utilizing a conceptual framework called Self-Determination Theory has identified several core components of successful romantic relationships. Here we will examine the theory and some of its contributions to our understanding of romantic relationships.
What Is Self-Determination Theory?
Self-determination theory is a fundamental theory of human behavior that serves to organize the different tendencies and needs of human beings in order to explain the motivation for their behavior and the personalities they develop. It is a theoretical framework which is useful for exploring and explaining certain human experiences.
The fundamental concept of Self-Determination Theory, as is apparent by the name, is the idea that human beings, when they are operating as a true self, are performing actions that are self-motivated and self-determined. This is to say that an individual’s behavior is not so much determined by their surroundings, their context, or the external influences acting upon them, but rather by their own conscious ability to choose what is best and to act upon their desires.
This theory is in contrast to other theoretical frameworks, such as several frameworks that fall under the heading “Behaviorism,” which maintain that human behavior contains almost no element of true agency, and that individual actions are determined – in part or in full – by influences that are outside of the individual’s control.
Self-Determination Theory posits that three processes are responsible for a human being’s ability to act: first, there is present a mindful, reflective awareness of what the individual needs and what tendencies they desire to act upon. Second, an acknowledgment that the environment of the individual is sufficient to support the actions that it intends to take. And third, that the actions of an individual are enfolded, by various degrees, into that individual’s personality: That the individual “owns” their actions, so to speak.
Recent research utilizing a framework of Self-Determination Theory reviewed what the theory has to say on the topic of romantic relationships.
What Self-Determination Theory Says about Romantic Relationships
In a 2015 study entitled “Self-Determination Theory and Romantic Relationship Processes,” published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review, the authors took a close look at past research involving Self-Determination Theory and romantic relationships, and attempted to synthesize the findings and present patterns found in the literature.
For the purposes of the study, the authors took an interest in how a true self acts in a romantic relationship, and what consequences there are to those actions. By true self, the authors referred to the self as defined by Self-Determination Theory, namely a self that has been fully internalized, fully adopted, and fully endorsed by an individual as part of their identity.
Thus, a true self in relationships is one who fully endorses one’s own involvement in a relationship, and does not blame that involvement on any other external factors such as manipulation, coercion, guilt, or lack of knowledge. The researchers were interested in examining the patterns of romantic relationships when the individuals involved are truly, wholly committed at the level of their identity.
The first useful takeaway that becomes immediately apparent from this conceptual framework is the simple idea that not all actions are performed by a true self. A very powerful feeling of awakening can arise inside a relationship when one or both parties realize that they are not truly acting according to their own needs or according to the interests of their true self, but rather simply preserving and going through the motions of what they believe they must do, or what role has been thrust upon them.
A second major takeaway of considering romantic relationships using the framework of Self-Determination Theory is the idea that the more one invests one’s identity in one’s activities, the more satisfying and fulfilling they become. This includes relationships. When the true self is acting in a relationship, there is a resounding sense of affirmation: The individual is in the relationship because they want to be, and because it is important to them. This authenticity spills over into a host of other relational benefits, including partners feeling affirmed and becoming more honest and aware of the other’s needs.
One final takeaway we will mention here among the many cited in the article is the Self-Determination Theory perspective on goals. There is a big difference in romantic relationships on the function of goals, depending on whether the individual adopts more of a victim mentality or if they act as a true self. Research has demonstrated that people who are able to pursue their own intrinsic goals autonomously inside a relationship have greater overall well-being. When both partners in a relationship are aware of what they want and can verbalize those desires so as to actively pursue them together, growth takes place and mutual satisfaction often follows.
Why This Theory Matters
In the end, Self-Determination Theory is just that – a theory. A “theory,” in the scientific sense of the word, defines a coherent and cohesive set of concepts and ideas that together form a framework of hypotheses. These hypotheses have dual value: to provide a working explanation of the phenomena of the world around us, as well as to generate specific questions that can be tested.
With this conception of Self-Determination Theory, it is apparent why there is value in considering romantic relationships from this perspective. If, using this theory, an individual is able to consider what their romantic relationships would look like if they were acting as a true self, according to the theory, they have the opportunity to learn a lot about who they are, what they want, what their relationships are like, and any number of other questions.
This is not to say that Self-Determination Theory is “true,” necessarily. Competing theories that more highly emphasize the role of the environment and of the situation in motivating human action also contain an element of truth.
Nonetheless, by interacting with these various different theories and understanding what they say about human action, an individual has the opportunity to develop their self-understanding. And with more self-understanding, particularly in the realm of intimacy and romantic awareness, comes a greater ability to experience the great joys that life has to offer.
For more information, feel free to read the above-mentioned research article, to check out any number of books on Self-Determination Theory, or to consult with a psychologist or trained mental health professional with experience in this theory.
Knee, C. R., Hadden, B. W., Porter, B., & Rodriguez, L. M. (2013). Self-Determination Theory and Romantic Relationship Processes. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17(4), 307-324.