Are We Born Racist?

Inside the science of prejudice, stigma, and intergroup relations.

Sculpt Your Partner: Be Like Mike (Michaelangelo)

The Michaelangelo Phenomenon may not be what you think.

As relationships grow, it's important for partners to remember that healthy relationships are ones in which each individual can also grow within the relationship. You can do a lot for your partner—and your relationship—by helping him or her grow.

Psychologists Caryl Rusbult and her colleagues (Rusbult, Finkel, & Kumashiro, 2009) have used the metaphor of sculpture to talk about the process of helping your partner grow. They dubbed it the Michaelangelo phenomenon, in which partners help the relationship by being the "sculptor" of their significant other. When I first heard about it, I thought it referred to the idea of shaping one's partner to be the way we want them to be—and I thought, hmm, not sure that would be good over the long term. 

I was both wrong and right. I was wrong in what the Michaelangelo phenomenon refers to. As Rusbult and colleagues write, rather than the sculptor imposing a particular shape onto a piece of stone, “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) 

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David's Michaelangelo (from R. Heil, Wikimedia Commons)
I immediately saw the point—great sculptors work with their material, allowing the grooves in the wood or the tracks of the stone to guide the chisel. The great ones, literally, bring forth what the figure wants to be. In the same way, the Michaelangelo phenomenon specifically refers to the process in which a Pat’s supportive behavior helps Jo realize Jo's ideal self (rather than Pat's view of the person Jo should be). In one study, for example, the researchers recorded romantic partners discussing each other’s ideal goals, and independent coders rated the extent how much each partner supported the other by offering constructive advice, providing praise and feedback, and offering support. This kind of constructive behavior by partners was predictive, four months later, of goal achievement among partners—as well as greater well-being at the level of the couple.

What I was right about is that the converse—trying to sculpt your partner into who you want them to be—is associated with negative relationship outcomes. Rusbult and colleagues call this the Pygmalion phenomenon. I guess one can think of this as being a sculpting hack.

There are, of course, different ways to support your partner, as I explore in this post. But the fact remains that when you help your partner self-actualize, both of you reap the benefits of a better relationship. 

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved. 

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D., is a social/personality psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

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