When we’re not happy with ourselves, it’s hard to be happy with someone else. You have the power to help your partner achieve a greater sense of personal satisfaction, which will in turn, make your relationship better.
Take Jim and Ryan.
Jim always considered himself a musician. Since he was a teenager, most of his dreams have revolved around playing his guitar in front of hoards of people who want nothing more than to see him rock out. When he was younger, he practiced often and played in a band. He loved it. Playing music was, as Jim put it, “being the best version of myself.”
Now, he feels his dreams have been thwarted. He’s 35 years old. He works as a server administrator for the U.S. Postal Service. His wife, Ryan, is terrific, but their life is hard. They don’t have a lot of extra cash on-hand, and they have two young children (both girls—ages two and five).
Two months ago, Ryan observed that the day-to-day grind was beginning to take a toll on Jim. He stopped playing and making music. He seemed down and bummed-out, so she suggested a “band reunion” at their house of his old college band, which hadn’t played together in years.
Jim’s friends drove in from out of town, camped in their yard and all spent the weekend kicking it in the garage. Ryan watched the kids most of the weekend and organized a lot of logistics, including inviting friends to attend a final concert at the end of the weekend.
For Jim, the mini-Coachella was magical and transformative. He started to see new possibilities for his current life, and that optimism improved things at home with Ryan.
What made this metamorphosis happen? Psychologists refer to it as the Michelangelo Phenomenon. The Michelangelo Phenomenon (MP) describes the way in which partners are able to help each other realize the ideal version of themselves. The artist, Michelangelo, said that for him, sculpting was a process of revealing the hidden beauty that rested in a hunk of marble. What he did with stone, you can do with your significant other.
Within relationships, the MP operates when our partner sees our dreams and aspirations, the skills and traits we possess—even those we only wish we had—then helps us realize those dreams, practice those skills or exhibit those traits.
Ryan “Michelangeloed” Jim, and you can do that for your partner. Doing so will improve your relationship!
Here’s how you can apply the Michelangelo Phenomenon in order to improve your relationship:
Know your partner. First ask yourself, “Do I have a good sense of my partner’s idealized self?” What does your partner’s ideal self look like? What are his/her dreams, aspirations, and/or what are the kinds of skills and traits he would like to cultivate in his life?
See your partner through new eyes. Begin to cultivate a perception of your partner in a way that is compatible with his/her ideal self. If you know your partner really wants to be good with tools around the house but actually sucks when trying to fix the toilet, can you cultivate a little compassion for how hard this might be? Can you begin to see him as more of a handy man—more of the way he wishes to be seen—and less of a klutz?
More seriously, what are you supposed to do when your partner’s actual self struggles with a problem like drug abuse? I would argue that you still need to do the same thing: Find a way to view your partner as he/she wishes to be seen. We can become a reflection of what other people see in us. If he’s trying to get sober, start to see him as a sober person. In this way, you can encourage him by demonstrating faith in his recovery.
Provide affirmation. Finally, it’s not enough to understand and to see your partner’s ideal self; to truly sculpt your David out of a hunk of marble, you have to act in a way that helps your partner act like his or her ideal self. We call this “affirming ideal-congruent behaviors.”
What the heck does this mean? In our example above, Jim’s ideal self is his musician self. Ryan affirms this best version of him by supporting the reunion in every way possible. She initiates the idea, she arranges the logistics (by watching the kids, etc.), and most basically, she supports Jim’s desire to get closer to his ideal self. (If you ask me, she’s the rock star here, but that’s a different story all together…)
Change Goes Both Ways
Let me conclude by anticipating one problem you might have with the MP. If your relationship is in decent shape, what I’ve proposed here might sound like a good idea. If, however, your relationship is on the rocks, you might have a knee-jerk objection to what I’ve proposed. In fact, you might think something like, “No way! All I do already is support him and his crazy behaviors. He needs to do more before I’ll do more. He needs to support my ideal self better, not the other way around.”
This is a legitimate concern. My response is simple, and I feel free to paraphrase Gandhi on this: Be the change you want to see in your relationship. It’s easy to say our problems rest with the other person. “If she was only doing X, Y, or Z our relationship would be better…etc.” It’s much, much harder to change yourself in order to see your relationship get better. Understanding how the MP works provides one route for starting to make these changes.
In the end, your efforts may be matched in kind. Now that sounds ideal.