Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Promoting Your Partner’s Ideal Self: The Michelangelo Phenomenon

In the past few blog posts, we have considered disagreements and value conflicts between partners, envying your partner, understanding jealousy and identifying similar and opposite personality traits. Now we ask:

Can you promote your partner’s ideal self? Can you help facilitate the dreams, traits, skills and resources your partner yearns to have as part of self? Understanding these questions involves recognizing the power each partner has in enhancing  growth in the other and accepting the belief that the individual growth of each partner will benefit the couple .

“ Did you want to play music your whole life?”

“If you could do it again, would you study law?”

“ I bet you always dreamed of owning a restaurant.”

Reporting in the 2009 Current Directions in Psychological Science on the interpersonal power of partners to promote or inhibit development of their partner, Caryl Rusbult, Eli Finkel and Madoka Kumashiro suggest that one of the most important ways that people advance towards the skills, traits, and goals they want to acquire is through their interpersonal relationships. They propose that the most powerful influence comes from partners in close interdependent relationships because people come to reflect what their partners see and elicit in them repeatedly over time and behavioral dimensions. They describe this potential influence as “The Michelangelo Phenomenon.”

The Michaelangelo Phenomenon

The term Michelangelo Phenomenon captures the idea that as a sculptor, Michelangelo in his chisels, carves and polishing, did not create the masterpieces but revealed their ideal forms that existed within the stone.

Applying this to partners, Rusbult and his colleagues suggest that people don’t  create an ideal partner — they can promote the emergence of their partner’s ideal self.

Can This Really Happen?

Most people really do want their partner to be the best that they can be, but this wish gets overshadowed by realities and fears:

  • How much will it cost?
  • Who will stay with the kids?
  • Nice that you want to play music, but the walls in the garage need painting!
  • But if you study, will mean we have less time together?

Much as it seems unbelievable that Michalangelo’s “Pieta” emerged from stone, the thought of a partner’s changing  from accountant to restaurant owner, for example, can seem unimaginable.

Obstacles to Promoting Your Partner’s Dream

Overlooking Process

    Michalangelo’s masterpieces did not emerge with one stroke or one day of chiseling. The tendency to overlook potential in your partner often reflects an inability to recognize the value and rewards of the process:

    “So she starts taking courses — how long until it gives her the job she wants?”

    (What if taking the courses fills her with enthusiasm and ideas?)

    “So he starts taking music lessons — how good could he get at 50?”

    (What if the thrill for him is that he is finally playing the piano?”)

    Fear of Change as Loss

      For some partners the thought of change in the partner, even for the better, is terrifying.

      “This is not what I signed up for.”

      “How can I be who I am if you change who you are?”

      The idea of promoting the ideal self in the other is meant to be mutual — each partner is supporting the development of the other. The overriding question is:

      Will we still be in love if we dare to develop, take steps in life, and uncover positive aspects of ourselves that we did not recognize years ago?

      Interpersonal Tools

      In their research and study of the Michelangelo Phenomenon, Rusbalt and his colleagues identified interpersonal tools for promoting partner growth that are valuable to consider:


      In studies in which partners verbally and non-verbally affirmed each other’s pursuit of a goal relevant to the ideal self, there was a much greater likelihood of achieving the goal four months later than with couples who were not affirming. Additional studies related affirmation to enhanced couple well-being and persistence.

      • Verbal Affirmation: “I think you have all the qualities you need to apply for that promotion.”
      • Behavioral Affirmation: “Do you want help laying out a plan for the next month?”
      • Non-Affirmation: Indifference, pessimism, and disapproval — all of which undermine the pursuit of ideal self goals.


      Perceiving your partner more positively than your partner perceives himself or herself has been found to be beneficial to individuals and the couple relationship:

      “You don’t realize how smart you are.”

      “You have the potential to be a great Coach.”

      It is worth recognizing that enhancement is most effective in terms of promoting a goal when it relates to that goal. For the partner yearning for a different job, it may be valuable to hear, “You are smarter than your friends.”It may be even more valuable to hear, “ I think your idea of switching to sales makes sense — you can sell anything.”


      “But what if my partner wants to sing country music but doesn’t really have that much talent?”

      Rusbult and colleagues report that verification of your partner’s actual self is not incompatible with affirmation of the goals of the ideal self. Both can be experienced as helpful and promoting.  To the partner who wants to sing country music it would not be affirming to say  “ Are you kidding? — You don’t have that kind of talent.”

      You might affirm the dream: “I know you would really love singing country music.”

      You might also verify the reality: “How about taking some lessons as a start.” And “Let’s plan a weekend in Nashville — to really see what it’s like.”

      There’s a funny thing about not resisting someone’s dream — they are usually more open to the feedback that the world gives them. Rather than move to Nashville, your partner might love the lessons, sing with friends and love your trips to Nashville to hear her favorite music.

      The Pygmalion Phenomenon

      The most common trap that partners fall into when trying to promote the ideal self of the other is believing that they know best what their partner should do, be or pursue. The Pygmalion Phenomenon occurs when we affirm, promote and push our partners to develop qualities that fit with our ideal selfnot theirs. It neither promotes personal growth nor couple well-being.

      He: “I think you should consider competing in golf — you could do it.”

      She: “I don’t like golf that much — you like golf.”

      She: “I think you would be great as a school administrator and you have the credits already.”

      He: “I love the kids and the classroom. I don’t need the power or the pressure.”

      An antidote to the Pygmalion Phenomenon is transparency and discussion. To own that you love competing in golf and wished that she did, to share that as a  teacher you wish you had the courage to consider being an administrator and therefore want it for him –- this opens the dialogue, renews the trust and the possibilities.

      So How Does Promoting the Ideal Self of Your Partner Really Enhance You as a Couple?

      In a close relationship, couples rarely give without also getting. Seeing potential, growth and joy in someone you love is almost always worth the mutual efforts and even the sacrifices. With their growth, if you are not too threatened or to frightened to notice, you also grow … and the person your partner is looking for when they get the job, sing the song or run through the finish line … is you.