Businessman Jim Rohn famously said that we’re the average of the five people we spend the most time with. If one of those five is a romantic partner, then their influence on you is probably disproportionately high. But we’re not saying that’s a bad thing. In fact, that can be a really, really positive thing. Let’s look at the Michelangelo phenomenon.
The Michelangelo phenomenon debuted as term in a 1999 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This concept “describes the means by which the self is shaped by a close partner’s perceptions and behavior.” The name stems from the idea of a close partner as a sculptor, helping shape you into whatever you both consider your ideal you. “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” as Michelangelo said of his sculpture of David. Essentially, you’re the block of marble, and your partner is the artist.
As described by the study’s authors from Southern Methodist University, this phenomenon is really a product of partner affirmation, or “the degree to which a partner’s perceptions of the self and behavior toward the self are congruent with the self’s ideal.” As long as your partner’s exemplary vision of you matches up with your own, your partner can be the supportive voice you need to actually move yourself toward your ideal. In that way, you’re actually the artist carving away at that slab of marble and your partner is just cheering from the sidelines, but the metaphor works regardless.
It’s a win-win. Kind of sweet, no? But all influence isn’t necessarily good influence. According to a 2016 study, the opposite of the Michelangelo phenomenon is the Blueberry phenomenon, “in which interdependent individuals bring out the worst qualities in each other.” Yikes.
This isn’t just all about being with a super supportive partner who shares your vision of your ideal self. It’s about you being that encouraging partner too. The best way to help propel your partner toward their ideals is to practice “partner affirmation.” According to a 2009 study, there are two elements of affirmation to consider: Partner perceptual affirmation and partner behavioral affirmation, both of which can be conscious or subconscious.
Perceptual affirmation is believing that your partner’s ideals for them are what you consider their ideal version as well. You can work to consciously adopt this perception, too. Behavioral affirmation is when you act in ways that affirm your partner’s ideals. If you share your partner’s ideals, these actions may be subconscious, but you can consciously show this type of support, too.
Here’s an example: Diana’s ideal self is a social butterfly — someone a bit more outgoing and warm than who she is today. David, Diana’s partner, may subconsciously react positively when Diana acts in a way that aligns with that goal. For instance, Diana makes a point to share a charming little story in a group setting that would usually make her a little anxious, and David comments positively. David can also consciously and directly set her up for accomplishing this goal: He can make a reference to a cute story Diana has that’s relevant to the larger conversation, giving an opportunity for Diana to jump in.
It’s important to mention that encouraging your partner to become their ideal self is different than encouraging them to become the ideal you have in mind. You can’t change a person into who you want them to be unless that’s who they want to be, too. The magic of the Michelangelo phenomenon lies in the alignment of common goals: you and your partner think of your partner’s ideal self in the same way, and both strive to help make that ideal a reality.