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Sculpt your partner: Be like Mike (Michaelangelo)

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | April 13, 2012

As relationships grow, it’s important for partners to remember that healthy relationships are ones in which each individual can also grow within the relationship. You can do a lot for your partner — and your relationship — by helping him or her grow.

Michaelangelo's David (from R. Heil, Wikimedia Commons)

Psychologsits Caryl Rusbult and her colleagues (Rusbult, Finkel, & Kumashiro, 2009) have used the metaphor of sculpture to talk about the process of helping your partner grow. They dubbed it the Michaelangelo phenomenon, in which partners help the relationship by being the “sculptor” of their significant other. When I first heard about it, I thought it referred to the idea of shaping one’s partner to be the way we want them to be — and I thought, hmm, not sure that would be good over the long term.

It turns out I was both wrong and right. I was wrong in what the Michaelangelo phenomenon refers to. As Rusbult and colleagues write, rather than the sculptor imposing a particular shape onto a piece of stone, “the sculptor’s task is simply to chip away at the stone so as to reveal the ideal form.” (Rusbult et al., 2009, p. 305)

I immediately saw the point — great sculptors work with their material, allowing the grooves in the wood or the tracks of the stone to guide the chisel. The great ones, literally, bring forth what the figure wants to be. In the same way, the Michaelangelo phenomenon specifically refers to the process process in which a Pat’s supportive behavior helps Jo realize Jo’s ideal self (rather than Pat’s view of the person Jo should be). In one study, for example, the researchers recorded romantic partners discussing each other’s ideal goals, and independent coders rated the extent how much each partner supported the other by offering constructive advice, providing praise and feedback, and offering support. This kind of constructive behavior by partners was predictive, four months later, of goal achievement among partners– as well as greater well-being at the level of the couple.

What I was right about is that the converse — trying to sculpt your partner into who you want them to be — is associated with negative relationship outcomes. Rusbult and colleagues call this the Pygmalion phenomenon. I guess one can think of this as being a sculpting hack.

There are, of course, different ways to support your partner, as I explore in this post. But the fact remains that when you help your partner self-actualize, both of you reap the benefits of a better relationship.

You can follow my posts through Twitter or Facebook. Copyright 2012 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Comments to “Sculpt your partner: Be like Mike (Michaelangelo)

  1. My motto is that I will not be with someone that will not help me grow, spiritually, professionally and personally, and I have found that one person that helps me in that way. Many people don’t understand he benefit behind supporting the one you are with and encouraging them to be better. When the person you are with has become a better him/her he/she will make you better and will see to it that both of you enjoy the harvest.

    I used to say that I wouldn’t date someone that has different area code with me; then my girl had to move away for school. I am actually finding long distance relationship to work for us. We were boyfriend/girlfriend before she left. Now we are engaged to be married.

    One key important thing I see that help in our long-distance relationship is completely supporting one another. The biggest thing is to be going through something while you are away and your partner is not backing you up. We find it so difficult nowadays for people believe in long distance or difficult for others to cope with it since they don’t know what to do.

  2. One must remember there have been only a few great people who have been able to produce historic sculptors. Thus, as evidence indicates when one tries to sculpt it usually ends in failure. Instead a proven method that can be like the Michaelangelo phenomenon is post modern family therapy. If a couple tries this method of counseling, they can create an image of how they want to be as a couple and work towards that goal.

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