What makes a relationship work is when both partners enjoy each other in the present and — equally important — each partner’s idealized mate mirrors the other’s ideal vision of him- or herself.
The Michelangelo Phenomenon adheres pretty closely to that latter part:
When you imagine your somewhat South-of-perfect spouse or partner as an idealized version of his or her self, you’re practicing what psychologists like to call the “Michelangelo phenomenon.” And rather than setting yourself up for disappointment when you finally realize your partner’s no Astronaut Mike Dexter, a new study of relationships says that creating an idealized vision of your loved one can actually help your partner become the person you want him or her to be.
It can be difficult to find a balance between future-looking pedestal-erecting and finding satisfaction in the here-and-now.
“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,” Eli Finkel, associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University said in a statement. “And over the long term, I more or less come to reflect what my partner sees and elicits from me.”
This “chiseling” language encapsulates the phenom perfectly. Under-ambitious encouragement comes off as lack of faith that a partner can improve at all. Over-ambitious support reads as lack of appreciation in the present.
In other words: People should encourage one another to realize the best version of themselves, but this requires some established loving baseline. Absent that loving-kindness (in platonic relationships) or reassurance (in romantic relationships) home becomes a hovel, support falls on deaf ears, and conversation grinds to a halt.
This approach doesn’t always work: for instance, if you’re hoping to turn Homer Simpson into Ned Flanders, it ain’t gonna happen.
“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,” said Finkel.
But if all your partner needs is a little bit of chiseling to get to the perfect specimen hidden in the stone, your gentle guidance and encouragement can help make that dream real.
“When our partners can chisel and polish us in a way that helps us to achieve our ideal self, that’s a wonderful thing.”