The Michelangelo Phenomenon: How Relationships Sculpt Personal Achievement

(3 min read)

We’re already a month into 2016, and some of you may have set New Year’s goals (see my previous post) that you’re well on your way to accomplishing. For others, a few slips may have already been made.

But, don’t fret. It’s still early, and there’s still time to redeem yourself.

When slips occur, it’s not uncommon to beat yourself up for not having enough willpower or drive. We (in the western world) often think of goal setting and self-betterment as an individual task requiring vast amounts of self-efficacy and determination, but did you know that the quality of your intimate relationships actually has a large impact on how successfully you’re able to move from your “actual” self to your “ideal” self?

In relationships, we mold one another. Like Michelangelo, who carved and shaped a block of stone until he revealed the “ideal” figure, so do we help our partners mold themselves into the type of person they would ultimately like to become (Rusbult, Finkel & Kumashiro, 2009).

And, they do the same for us.

…Or, at least we hope they would  ; )

Over the course of a relationship, we alter our behaviours so as to respond to and meet our partner’s needs. Partners dance around one another in a series of intricate interactions and exchanges, which leads to gradual and favourable changes in both individuals.

This is what is known as “The Michelangelo Phenomenon” (Kelley et al., 2003).

Of course, such sculpting can be performed in a number of ways, but in healthy relationships, partners should each sculpt one other to become the very best version of themselves. In this way, partners respond positively to the traits that characterize the other’s ideal self, and as these traits are affirmed, they are further expressed (Rusbult & Van Lange, 2003).

Research proves to be in support of this claim. Couples who are affirming and encouraging during goal-related conversations are, indeed, more likely to achieve their ideal self-goals (Rusbult et al., 2009).

So, if your partner has responded positively to your New Year’s goals and ideals, you’re more likely to be actively moving towards them.

Yes?

Okay, well not always. Some highly motivated individuals will accomplish their goals no matter what. But, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a supportive partner.

Something else to get straight, here – if you’re in a relationship and you’re not making progress towards your goals, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all your partner’s fault (we don’t want to place blame here – unless, he’s actively plotting your demise! – in most cases, though, this is not likely). Instead, I’d like to get you thinking about the role that your relationship (and both partners’ sculpting abilities) might be playing in the ongoing self-development of both individuals.

If we can learn to express our excitement and satisfaction with the self that our partner is aspiring to become (unless we totally disagree with whatever this is, in which case we might want to re-think why we’re in the relationship to begin with!), our partner is more likely to become this ideal version of him or herself. And in doing so, it’s likely that our partner will reciprocate our enthusiasm and affirm our own personal endeavors.

At the end of the day, all we want is a partner who’s on our side, right?

 

Couples Therapy Copenhagen

 

The psychological benefits of this reciprocal relationship are pretty inspiring. Couples who affirm one another’s ideal self exhibit increases in personal well-being, greater relationship and life satisfaction, and enhanced adjustment and persistence (e.g. Drigotas, 2002; Drigotas, Rusbult, Wieselquist & Whitton, 1999; Kumashiro Rusbult, Finkenauer & Stocker, 2007). Not to mention, couples who view each other in a highly favourably light tend to have the most successful relationships (e.g., Murray, Holmes & Griffin, 1996).

It’s incredible to think about how much stress could be diffused within our relationships simply by working with our partner, rather than against them!

And, how much happiness could be achieved by accomplishing and watching your partner accomplish more personal goals.

A couple of words of caution, however:

Although it pays to affirm the ideal self that your partner is creating, it’s critical to acknowledge, verify and support her actual self. A balance between both is necessary in order to demonstrate your love and acceptance of your partner as she already is, regardless of whether she’s able to reach her goals or not (e.g. Kumashiro et al., 2009).

And, it’s never a good idea to project your idea of an ideal onto your partner. The master-plan for one’s ideals must come from the individual him or herself.

Of course, the door is always open for helping that plan come to light. All you need to do is get out your sculpting tools and get in touch with your inner Michelangelo.

 ***


Drigotas, S. M. (2002). The Michelangelo phenomenon and personal well-being. Journal of Personality, 70, 59–77.

Drigotas, S. M., Rusbult, C. E., Wieselquist, J. & Whitton, S. (1999). Close partner as sculptor of the ideal self: Behavioral affirmation and the Michelangelo phenomenon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 293–323.

Kelley, H. H., Holmes, J. G., Kerr, N. L., Reis, H. T., Rusbult, C. E. & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2003). An atlas of interpersonal situations. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kumashiro, M., Rusbult, C. E., Coolsen, M. K., Wolf, S. T., van den Bosch, M., & van der Lee, R. (2009). Partner affirmation, verification, and enhancement as determinants of attraction to potential dates: Experimental evidence of the unique effect of affirmation. Unpublished manuscript, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Kumashiro, M., Rusbult, C. E., Finkenauer, C., & Stocker, S. L. (2007). To think or to do: The impact of assessment and locomotion orientation on the Michelangelo phenomenon. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24, 591–611.

Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G. & Griffin, D.W. (1996). The benefits of positive illusions: Idealization and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 79–98.

Rusbult, C. E., Coolsen, M., Kirchner, J., Stocker, S., Kumashiro, M., Wolf, S., et al. (2009). Partner affirmation and target movement toward ideal in newly-committed relationships. Unpublished manuscript, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Rusbult, C. E., Finkel, E. J. & Kumashiro, M. (2009). The Michelangelo Phenomenon. Current Psychological Directions in Science, 18(6), 305-309.

Rusbult, C. E. & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2003). Interdependence, interaction, and relationships. Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 351–375.

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