Take a moment to think about the kind of person you would ideally like to be. What skills or traits do you want to possess? Is it important to you that you develop greater patience, foster leadership skills, become physically fit, or learn to speak another language? Psychologists believe that each person has an “ideal self” they strive to become.1 This ideal self is essentially the person you would be if you fulfilled all your dreams and aspirations. Certainly, you might be able to work toward your ideal qualities on your own, but it seems that your romantic partner can be especially helpful (or unhelpful) in shaping you, a process researchers refer to as the Michelangelo phenomenon.2
This phenomenon is named for the Renaissance artist Michelangelo (famous for the Pietà and David, among other masterpieces), who viewed sculpting as an opportunity for an artist to release an ideal figure from the block of stone in which it slumbers. The ideal figure exists within the stone, and the artist simply removes the stone covering it. In romantic relationships, partners adapt to each other, adjusting as needed to keep the relationship running smoothly, and over time these responses can become a relatively permanent part of who we are (read more about this idea here). Thus, our romantic partners can “sculpt” us (and we can “sculpt” our partners) just as Michelangelo sculpted marble figures.
You and your partner can influence each other’s growth toward an ideal self in ways that can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful.2,3 To illustrate how this could work, imagine that Larry’s ideal self includes being adventurous. His partner Connie is most helpful when she affirms his adventurous spirit (for instance, Connie could be positive and encouraging when Larry wants to try new things, like skydiving). However, Connie could also fail to affirm Larry’s ideal self by affirming qualities that are irrelevant to his adventurous ideal. Perhaps Larry is indifferent to the possession of computer programming skills, but Connie believes he is an exceptional programmer. Connie may then affirm his programming skills rather than his adventurous spirit, doing little to help him become his ideal self. So, failing to affirm ideal qualities isn’t necessarily bad (because Larry might become a better programmer), but it isn’t particularly good either (because Larry is not working toward his vision of his ideal self). The most harmful method of “sculpting” is when Connie disaffirms Larry’s ideal self, either by responding negatively to Larry’s attempts at developing adventurous qualities (she might, for example, tell him it’s stupid to go skydiving) or by affirming qualities that oppose his ideal self. Connie may view Larry as restrained rather than adventurous, and thus may consciously or unconsciously create situations in which Larry acts restrained (such as planning a vacation full of quiet, stuffy dinners and few chances for adventurous exploration), keeping him from moving toward his ideal self.
Compared to partners who fail to affirm or disaffirm ideal qualities, partners who affirm each other reap a number of personal and relationship benefits. When your partner affirms you, you experience better psychological health and satisfaction with life because you are becoming the person you want to be.4 On top of personal growth, when your partner affirms your ideal qualities, this can make you feel understood, and can communicate that your partner approves of you and genuinely cares about your goals and aspirations; this in turn promotes trust, commitment, and satisfaction in relationships.3
What’s the take-home message here? You and your partner have a huge capacity to help or hinder each other in becoming the ideal people you hope to be. Helping each other strive for your ideal selves can be extremely rewarding, both for yourselves as individuals and also for your relationship. Thus, help your partner become his/her ideal self, and pay attention to whether s/he affirms, fails to affirm, or disaffirms your ideal self. You may find that by affirming each other, you both attain your goals faster than you think!
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1Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41, 954-969.
2Drigotas, S. M., Rusbult, C. E., Wieselquist, J., & Whitton, S. W. (1999). Close partner as sculptor of the ideal self: Behavioral affirmation and the Michelangelo phenomenon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 293-323.
3Rusbult, C. E., Finkel, E. J., & Kumashiro, M. (2009). The Michelangelo phenomenon. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 305-309.
4Drigotas, S. M. (2002). The Michelangelo phenomenon and personal well-being. Journal of Personality, 70, 55-77.
Sarah Stanton, M.Sc. - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Sarah is interested in how different types of people think, feel, and behave in relationships, the positive and negative relationship outcomes associated with low self-regulatory ability, and how relationship experiences influence goal pursuit, bodily stress responses, and mental and physical health outcomes.