Self-determination theory as motivation over expressive individualism

July 24, 2018

Words, words, words, I'm so sick of words.
~Eliza Doolittle


So we get married or get coupled to be together and share rent and other living expenses, and then someday we think we’ll have some kids and we will feel like we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. Then one day, some niggling feeling you’ve had that it was all for naught, or worse, that it was for just what this is, and a sinking feeling of existential crisis sweeps over you, giving way to a plan being hatched, or not so much a plan, but a desperate bid to pinch yourself awake and find that you are still smart, and you are still sexy, and it is really not you at all but the circumstance and these people who have stolen your je ne sais quoi. Until recently, no one asked the question, "Why do we even get married?" Nope, because it was pretty much what humans did to survive and/or amass wealth right up until the last 20 years or so. 


This is what’s known as expressive individualism, which holds that we make our choices as a consumer of every kind—even the marrying or coupling kind—vis a vis how that external item is going to make the self feel better about self, augment self, make self look better, or complement the strengths or weaknesses of the self. The downside? The adjustment that such a committed primary relationship necessarily has to make to accommodate the weight of two individuals who are heavily invested in each’s own happiness over the collective weight of happiness and over the other’s goals or shifting developments along the lifespan has not been shown to be worth it to each individual. This would account for a 47-57% divorce rate in the U.S.


The entity known as The Relationship is only as load-bearing as its participants. The relationship simply cannot bear the brunt of the whims and individual wishes of one or both parties to a loving relationship, at least not one where the expectation of the individuals in the union have a certain set of expectations, such as happily ever after or offspring with no real speed bump in personal longings. The framework of the love-marriage juxtaposed to expressive individualism is designed to fail unless both parties get in there, roll up their sleeves, and define and negotiate a union of their making, with both parties involved, with all parties present who have decision-making ability within the relationship, and then do minor and major tune-ups like you would a car.


Our strong culture of marriage in the United States does not really dovetail nicely with our pride of individualism, and the way we raise children further exacerbates the will of the individual and the dullness of the attraction of marriage, as current records show marriage rates have fallen from ~9.8/1000 people in 1990 to ~6.9/1000 in 2016 (NCHS), and since the advent of no-fault divorce, the spike in divorce went up nearly double what it was pre-WWII.

But the ability to get a divorce has costs well beyond the lawyers and court fees, and even beyond two households, so what else is there? Opt out of marriage? Opt to give it your best shot? Probably most people opt to give it their best shot, and that likely accounts for a lot of why younger people and those once bitten, twice shy-ers have taken themselves out of the contractual obligation piece of the equation.


Self-determination theory, a primer

There are other routes to harmony that involve a lot of Deci & Ryan’s work on self-determination theory, which forms much of the basis of facilitative mediation and is an excellent groundswell for understanding self in terms of self, history, attachment, and motivation—how everyone gets what they both want and need.


Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

SDT posits two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. These shape our view of self and modifies how we behave (Deci & Ryan, 2008). Extrinsic motivation shapes our behavior from reward centers away from our internal landscape, such as positive and negative reward systems. These begin with affirmations in early childhood and move into other external means such as grades, raises, praise, and esoteric rewards such as ego gratification from respect and accolades. Intrinsic motivation is driven from within, such as our values, interests, morality, and temperament. Both work in a tandem hunting oscillation that creates equilibrium between the ideal self and how we move within the broader social world at large, and both include elements of autonomous motivation (when a person is motivated to do something extrinsically due to it being in alignment with intrinsic values) and controlled motivations (external regulators as operant controls of punishments and rewards, and introjected regulators, such as shame and approval seeking).


Autonomy, Competent, Connected

The framework for Self-Determination Theory makes three assumptions about our needs and drives. That we are:


Competent, and



These are thought to drive our quest for integration in regulating the self, motivated by intrinsically motivated values and to act in accordance with the higher self’s values.

We are rarely driven by one type of motivation or the other, so it is important to remember SDT as a spectrum from non-self-determined to self-determined, with varying shades of each along the way. At the right end of the spectrum, Deci & Ryan have what is akin to the top of Abraham Maslow’s triangle: self-actualization of one kind or another. When a person is being completely regulated by internal sources, completely self-motivated, determined, and driven by core interests and values, that person is considered to be intrinsically regulated, but this isn't a competition--merely an opportunity to understand the self better in order to fit the self into the broader social fabric, and that would certainly include within the fabric of an intimate partnership.


Although self-determination is generally an individual goal, we are frequently motivated by external sources and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are highly influential determinants of our behavior, and both drive us to meet the three basic needs identified by the SDT model:  

1.    Autonomy: people have a need to feel that they are the masters of their own destiny and that they have at least some control over their lives; most importantly, people have a need to feel that they are in control of their own behavior.

2.    Competence: another need concerns our achievements, knowledge, and skills; people have a need to build their competence and develop mastery over tasks that are important to them.

3.    Relatedness (Connection): people need to have a sense of belonging and connectedness with others; each of us needs other people to some degree (Deci & Ryan, 2008).


Life is a quest of understanding our place within the fabric of many, many other lives, and when we do the work to understand what motivates ourselves, we have a better understanding of others. Opportunities open up to us to receive others and to be received by others. We always have a new opportunity to learn more about our strengths and to heal wounds that we didn't even know were there, and it is because of individual differences in personality and lived experience that we see different degrees of accessibility in how we are motivated, which directly correlate to how an individual's need has been satisfied or thwarted along the way (2008). 


In a bid to educate couples on relational and sexual satisfaction, it is important to look at the ipso facto nature of our relationship to the import of the self: from the theory of expressive individualism, which has ruled so much of U.S. culture, family law, and relationship since 1985 to the more weighted understanding of motivation through self-determination.


Next on SDT: Causality orientations and Life Goals



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