NORTHWESTERN (US)—Just as a sculptor chisels and polishes away flaws in stone to reveal an ideal form, skillful partners support each other’s dreams and aspirations and nurture traits they hope to develop.
An international review of this so-called “Michelangelo phenomenon” shows that when close partners affirm and support each other’s ideal selves, they and the relationship benefit greatly.
“To the degree that the sculpting process has gone well, that you have helped mold me toward my ideal self, the relationship functions better and both partners are happier,” says Eli Finkel, associate professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University.
“And over the long term, I more or less come to reflect what my partner sees and elicits from me,” he continues
The Michelangelo effect is not simply about supporting your partner, nor is it about promoting what you think your partner’s ideal self should be, Finkel says.
“Even if partners treat us in perfectly loving, supportive ways, if the treatment is not consistent with the person we dream of becoming, we have to pay attention to those red flags,” Finkel warns.
“Is that the person you want to be married to 10 years down the road?”
The Michelangelo studies show that close partners sculpt one another’s traits and skills and promote, versus inhibit, one another’s goal achievement. “It’s not just that you treat me positively,” Finkel says. “You treat me in particular ways that dovetail with my ideal self.”
Finkel says supporting a partner’s image of his ideal self in this way, whether it is a vague yearning or a clearly articulated mental representation, helps the loved one reduce the discrepancy between the actual self and the ideal self.
Conversely, a relationship can run into trouble when an individual emphasizes attributes that are peripheral to the core elements of what a partner ideally wishes to become.
Some people are better sculptors than others and are particularly adept at bringing out others’ ideal selves. Some individuals may be on the verge of achieving great personal growth and be open to any number of people who could help them.
And others, the studies show, may have a much more difficult time bringing out someone’s ideal self or be much more resistant to the Michelangelo effect.
The studies reviewed in the journal article used longitudinal procedures to examine how people grow toward their ideal selves over time as a result of how their partners treat them.
At the beginning of the studies, individuals reported on their actual and their ideal selves, and their partners reported on how they view the individuals.
To gain an external perspective, some studies incorporated the perspective of the individuals’ friends.
Across studies, individuals were especially likely to grow toward their ideal selves when their partners viewed them in line with this ideal. The process ultimately promoted both relational and personal well-being for both partners.
“When deciding on a life partner, we consider many factors,” Finkel observes.
“But we frequently neglect to think about whether the person I hope to be in 10 years is consistent with the person you want me to be in 10 years. When our partners can chisel and polish us in a way that helps us to achieve our ideal self, that’s a wonderful thing.”
Researchers from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and Goldsmiths, University of London contributed to the study, which appears in the December issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.
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