If you think “I’m a better person when I’m with my partner” or you think that “My partner brings out my best version”, it is likely that you are under the influence of the “Michelangelo Effect”.
We are all, to some extent, permeable. “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”, wrote John Donne. We cannot completely escape the influence of others, especially those closest to us, whose expectations of us end up influencing our decisions and even shaping our personality.
It is not necessarily a negative thing. To live in society we must know how to adapt. To maintain satisfying relationships we must be sensitive to the needs of the others. Even for our own emotional well-being, we must be able to navigate the complex world of human relationships with as little conflict as possible.
What is the Michelangelo Effect?
The Michelangelo Effect refers to the “modeling” process that occurs in couples with the aim of ensuring that each member develops their ideal “self”. In practice, each person “carves” the other to promote positive characteristics.
When a person sees his/her partner in a favorable light and relates based on that positive image, he/she directly and indirectly transmits his/her expectations, which end up influencing the other’s behaviors, attitudes, and decisions.
Michelangelo, the Renaissance painter and sculptor, believed that sculpting was releasing the ideal forms that were hidden in a piece of marble. For this reason, the American psychologist Stephen Michael Drigotas used this metaphor to refer to the phenomenon by which people who are in a romantic relationship mold each other to get the ideal “self” of the other.
The 3 steps of the carving process, how do the couples shape themselves?
The Michelangelo Effect is a long process, which generally occurs unconsciously, through which the members of the couple feed a series of expectations about an ideal “self”, project and confirm them, in such a way that they help the other to become that person and develop the desired qualities.
1. Formation of the ideal “self”. The Michelangelo Effect begins when we form an ideal image of the other person, which has its origin in the initial stages of falling in love, but changes over time as we discover the new potential of the couple.
2. Positive reinforcement of the ideal “self”. Interpersonal relationships are like a dance in which each movement is a synchronized response to the movement of the other. Many times, without realizing it, we reinforce the positive behaviors of our partner by highlighting the qualities that we like.
3. Development of the ideal “self”. The validation we receive from our partner makes it more likely that desirable behaviors will establish themselves as stable patterns, leading to the development or reinforcement of certain qualities that favor the relationship.
This modeling process is usually produced through different mechanisms of selection of desirable behaviors and qualities in the other, as psychologists from the Southern Methodist University pointed out:
• Retroactive selection. It is a mechanism that intervenes after a behavior has occurred, through reward or punishment. For example, when we let our partner see that we like his/her attentive behavior, after having had a detail with us.
• Preventive selection. It occurs when we initiate an interaction that promotes certain behaviors in the other person, pushing them in that direction. For example, we can have details with our partner so that he/she understands that it is something that we value positively, which will encourage a counterpart.
• Situational selection. In this case, we generate situations in which the desirable behaviors are likely to occur. For example, if we value extraversion in our partner, we can meet up with friends and make plans with others so that he/she can develop his/her social skills.
In a way, the Michelangelo Effect is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, which is why it resembles the Pygmalion Effect. In fact, it is a phenomenon that teachers know very well since the image they form of their students ends up influencing their academic performance since, unconsciously, they send them signals that they can achieve it or, on the contrary, the discourage effort.
We’re all stone and sculptors at times – and it’s not a bad thing
At times, we are all the stone or the sculptor. Our expectations shape our partner, just as his/her expectations shape us. In fact, the Michelangelo Effect is a mutual phenomenon in which both are sculpted and changed to build a more satisfying relationship for both of them.
Some people could see this modeling process as a “violence” that “forces” them to move away from their authentic “self”. However, the truth is that our essence is mutating, whether we want it or not, and the people around us influence the direction we take.
Although the individualistic vision of the society pushes us to set goals and achieve them alone, the truth is that having the support and help of others can greatly facilitate our path. If we want to lead a healthier lifestyle, for example, it will be easier for us if our partner adds to this change in habits.
A study carried out at University College London found that both women and men are more likely to quit smoking, exercise more or lose weight if their partner joins the challenge of living healthier. Through a thousand different ways, close relationships can help or hinder our progress.
Another research carried out at the University of Cologne, for example, revealed that people who feel very satisfied in their relationship with their partner, feel more secure and have a greater sense of control when pursuing their goals. Undoubtedly, when the couple becomes a source of stability, we feel more confident to pursue our goals and unfold our potential.
In fact, sometimes the Michelangelo Effect can lead us down unsuspected paths. The influence of our partner can bring to light facets that we did not know, or were afraid to explore. By taking ourselves out of our emotional comfort zone, giving ourselves just the right amount of support and security, we can grow and broaden our perspectives by adding new passions, interests, skills, or qualities to our individual arsenal.
The dark side of the Michelangelo Effect that we must avoid
The Michelangelo Effect does not consist of idealizing someone while ignoring who he/she is or feeding unrealistic expectations that put the other person on the ropes, making him/her feel inadequate. It is not a question of imposing a form of behavior on the other.
The sculptor who wants to properly carve a block of stone must not only be skilled with its tools, but must also be able to intuit the ideal shape that sleeps under that block. That means understanding persons, putting ourselves in their place, knowing their potential and, obviously, helping them to overcome the obstacles and their fears.
In fact, psychologists from the University of London verified that for the Michelangelo effect to be successful – both personally and as a couple – it is essential that the ideal “self” that drives the other is in line with our ideals and the changes that we wish to do. Therefore, the couple acts more as a catalyst for change, which prevents our autonomy from being threatened.
Seeing our partner in a positive perspective, being aware of his/her potential, will help us avoid unnecessary conflicts. It will also allow us to iron out rough edges and helps convey our expectations about the relationship. In this way there will not be a dialogue of the deaf in which each member strives to please the other, without achieving results. The Michelangelo Effect helps us understand what our partner values, in order to his/her their needs as much as possible. And vice versa.
The key to differentiating that positive influence from manipulation or imposition lies within us. If by our partner’s side we have grown, explored new facets of ourselves and feel that we have become a better or more complete person, then his/her influence is beneficial.
Obviously, this positive influence must be mutual. The Michelangelo Effect provides for reciprocity. It is not about molding the other to our liking, but about helping him/her to get the best version of him/her while we commit to developing our best “self”. In short, it is about growing together looking in the same direction.
Hofmann, W. et. Al. (2015) Close relationships and self-regulation: How relationship satisfaction facilitates momentary goal pursuit. J Pers Soc Psychol; 109(3):434-52.
Jackson, S. E. et. Al. (2015) The Influence of Partner’s Behavior on Health Behavior Change The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. JAMA Internal Medicine; 175(3): 385-392.
Rusbult, C. E. et. Al. (2009) The Michelangelo Phenomenon. Current Directions in Psychological Science; 18(6): 305-309.
Drigotas, S. M. et. Al. (1999) Close partner as sculptor of the ideal self: behavioral affirmation and the Michelangelo phenomenon. J Pers Soc Psychol; 77(2): 293-323.