In Michelangelo Phenomenon, Partners Can Improve Each Other Through Idealization

A new study of relationships says that creating an idealized vision of your loved one (aka "the Michelangelo phenomenon") can actually help your partner become the person you want him or her to be.

If you’ve ever been to the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy, you’ve probably gasped in wonder at the enormous sculpture of David, Michelangelo’s image of human perfection. How did the sculptor create such an astonishingly flawless work of art?

It was easy, according to the artist. “I saw an angel in the block of marble and I just chiseled ‘til I set him free,” Michelangelo reportedly said.

When you imagine your somewhat South-of-perfect spouse or partner as an idealized version of his or her self, you’re practicing what psychologists like to call the “Michelangelo phenomenon.” And rather than setting yourself up for disappointment when you finally realize your partner’s no Astronaut Mike Dexter, a new study of relationships says that creating an idealized vision of your loved one can actually help your partner become the person you want him or her to be.

“To the degree that the sculpting process has gone well, that you have helped mold me toward my ideal self, the relationship functions better and both partners are happier,” Eli Finkel, associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University said in a statement. “And over the long term, I more or less come to reflect what my partner sees and elicits from me.”

This approach doesn’t always work: for instance, if you’re hoping to turn Homer Simpson into Ned Flanders, it ain’t gonna happen.

“Even if partners treat us in perfectly loving, supportive ways, if the treatment is not consistent with the person we dream of becoming, we have to pay attention to those red flags,” said Finkel.

But if all your partner needs is a little bit of chiseling to get to the perfect specimen hidden in the stone, your gentle guidance and encouragement can help make that dream real.

“When our partners can chisel and polish us in a way that helps us to achieve our ideal self, that’s a wonderful thing.”

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