In your long term relationships, you’ve probably observed how you and your partner both subtly change over time – hopefully for the better. Over time, we have a significant effect on how our partners change, just as they affect who we become. Psychologists have come up with two sculpture-based terms for these processes of alteration: the Michelangelo phenomenon, and the Pygmalion phenomenon.
The story of Ovid’s Pygmalion is that of a sculptor who is disdainful of the women he sees around him, so he sets out to sculpt the perfect woman and falls in love with his own statue. In the context of relationship studies, this myth is used to describe partners who try to change the other person to become who they want them to be – and is associated with negative relationship outcomes.
Constructive support brings out the best in relationships!
The Michelangelo phenomenon, on the other hand, happens when partners bring out the best in one another through constructive support. Instead of imposing a preconceived shape onto a piece of marble, “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) These couples help each other realize their individual ideal selves, rather than change one partner into the other’s ideal. The 2009 study conducted by Rusbult, Finkel and Kumashiro involved recording romantic partners discussing each other’s goals, with coders rating how much each partner supported the other with constructive advice, praise, positive feedback and offers of support. Constructive behavior turned out to be predictive of both goal achievement among partners and strengthened relationships.
In your relationship, consider your own personal goals. What kind of person do you want to be? If non-ideal parts of you could be chipped away, what true form would they reveal? What are your spouse’s ideal goals? You may find insights into your relationship by reading about the Four Drivers – then determine how you can help sculpt your marriage into a masterpiece.