Is Your Relationship Growing or Diminishing Your Real Self?
Looking at the interaction of "we" and "I"
Posted Aug 26, 2015
“Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds” Shakespeare famously—and perhaps simplistically and naively—wrote in the poem now called Sonnet 116. Not only can love alter over time but it can alter us in good ways and bad, which fascinates just about everyone, including writers, moviemakers, and, of course, psychologists. We watch with wonder or dismay when someone we know is transformed by a relationship in ways we would never have predicted and, sometimes, when we’re in a relationship, just a glance at ourselves in a mirror can thrill us or bring us down. It might be the wild, crazy, hard-drinking and perpetually wired dude from college who marries a loving and thoughtful woman when he is thirty and becomes a solid citizen known as kind, generous, and a pillar in his community. Alternatively, it could be the confident girl we grew up with—full of energy and ideas, and a delight to listen to—who becomes quiet and withdrawn under the thumb of her demanding and critical partner.
Why is it that a close relationship—which we seek out to give us a secure base in a world that can feel both lonely and fraught—can either enlarge our sense of self or diminish it? And are we always in control of the outcome?
What science knows
There’s a moment in the movie As Good As It Gets when Jack Nicholson as the utterly obsessive and unkind work-in-progress named Melvin Udall says to Carol Connelly, the kind-as-the-day-is-long waitress played by Helen Hunt, “You make me want to be a better man.” That pretty much sums up what all of us hope a close relationship will do —turn us into a better version of our true selves—but that’s what happens only some of the time. It even has a name: The Michelangelo phenomenon.
The Michelangelo phenomenon
Michelangelo described sculpting less as a creative process than one which realized the ideal form within a piece of stone and then released it. That’s what study after study revealed in some relationships: that the partner was able to help a partner achieve his or her best self and, with support, affirmation, and caring, be able to reach personal goals which might otherwise have not been gained. It’s distinguished from The Pygmalion phenomenon—named after the Greek myth of the sculptor who, disappointed by his failure to find the ideal woman, sculpts one who then becomes human—because, in this scenario, it’s the partner’s imposed definition of what the lover should be that fuels the transformation.
But the Michelangelo phenomenon is hardly universal, and parts of the self may be lost or damaged in some intimate relationships instead. Sometimes, the worst version of ourselves emerges from close connection.
That’s what intrigued psychologists Brent Mattingly, Gary Lewandowski, and Kevin McIntyre who wanted to understand the mechanism by which relationships could enlarge or diminish our sense of self. The model they hypothesized—and then tested in a series of experiments—is, I think, really smart and illuminating, and quite nuanced.
Another relational model
The model is two-dimensional. The first dimension is that the change in self-concept can move in two opposite directions, towards expansion or contraction. The second dimension measures whether the self-concept is actually incorporating new positive qualities or traits or negative ones. While the dimensions are separate, in combination they create four different ways in which a partner or the partnership itself can influence an individual’s self-concept. They are:
self-expansion: This is the Good as It Gets scenario in which love giveth without taking anything away. The person in the relationship not only expands his or her self-concept but actually adds or recognizes new positive traits and qualities, and grows in understanding. This is what happens when your lover shares a passion of his or hers with you, and you too become passionate, or you get the encouragement you need to do something you’ve always wanted to do or study. Or you discover, in the course of things, that you had patience or some other good quality you never recognized. Like the Michelangelo phenomenon, self-expansion occurs in relationships where a partner gives both wide berth and encouragement to a lover’s growth. Not surprisingly, self-expansion also endows the relationship with greater value, motivates people to work harder at maintaining their connection, and results in their feeling greater love for their partner.
self-contraction: Alas, here’s the love taketh away part. We’ve all seen this happen to ourselves or others—when someone in a relationship is forced to see less and less of his or her friends because the partner doesn’t approve, or has to sacrifice an activity or pursuit that used to be important to him or her to keep the peace, or some other scenario that includes one dominant partner and the other in the appeasement role. Not good. The concept of self ends up being diminished by the romantic relationship.
self-pruning: We’re back in positive territory here as the person in the relationship is persuaded or encouraged by his or her lover to tackle his or her own negative attributes. These could be bad habits (like smoking or not exercising enough) or not being diligent or focused and the like. Just read dedications in books or listen to Oscar speeches and you’ll see self-pruning articulated. Needless to say, with a good and uncritical cheerleader at hand, you’re likely to feel better about yourself and grateful to your partner for helping to create an emotional environment conducive to change. You’re likely to value the relationship more which is a win/win for everyone involved. While a separate process, self-pruning will also lead to self-expansion in the long run.
self-adulteration: Here we find ourselves in negative territory again where the partner or the relationship itself facilitates the addition of negative attributes or enlarges existing ones. This could happen in many domains, especially behavior. The downward spiral of Demand/Withdraw—in which one person makes an emotional demand and the partner withdraws or stonewalls in response—is one pattern which can easily turn both parties into the worst versions of themselves, for example. Reactivity to a partner who constantly needles or belittles you and deciding to answer in kind is another.
Three studies confirmed the model as well as the connection between the positive aspects of the “we” on the I” (self-expansion and self-pruning) which reflected increased satisfaction and commitment to the relationship. In contrast, the negative processes (self-contraction and self-adulteration) reflected decreased satisfaction and commitment, along with an increase in infidelity. (Not surprising, is it?) One limit to the study was its focus on intact relationships in which, presumably, negative processes were less prevalent. A second paper with additional studies confirmed these findings.
So, which patterns operate in your relationship? Are you inclined to feel that your partner brings out the best in you, or the worst, or something in-between? Looking at our relationships honestly with this model in mind permits some clarity about how our sense of self is being shaped by a prospective partner or a lover or a spouse.
Our desire for connection may sell the self short sometimes
Yes (sigh), that’s what a study conducted by Erica Slotter and Wendi Gardner showed, which explains the sinking feeling you have when your teenager falls for the “bad” girl or boy or your ought-to-know-better adult friend is suddenly co-opting negative behaviors in order to fit in better with her romantic interest. There’s another movie comparison here, though it’s the researchers’ and not mine, which is the Grease scenario. Remember how the goody-two-shoes transforms herself into a “bad” girl to reclaim her summer love? Well, it turns out that when the possibility of romantic connection seems real, people are often ready to embrace whatever it takes—including negative attributes—to make it happen.
After a breakup, the self changes too
And this too can be negative or positive, depending on the relationship. While the self can be liberated from the influence of an oppressive partner, the loss of a relationship that has expanded the self can cause contraction of the self, as a study by Gary Lewandowski and others showed. Thus, emotional recovery will include a cognitive aspect, affecting how we see and think about who we are. It’s worth keeping in mind too that, as the work of Patricia Linville showed, the more complex our sense of self is (including more positive traits and roles), the greater the buffer to potential loss.
The bottom line? We all want to believe that close connections grow us but sometimes they don’t. I think that the model proposed by Dr. Mattingly and his colleagues is hugely valuable to all of us as we assess where we find ourselves and where we need to be, especially if we were insecurely attached in childhood and more likely to connect to those who don’t help us nurture and grow our sense of self. Yes, we can be unlucky in love but there are more reliable guides to turning things around than hunting for a four-leaf clover.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2015
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Rusbelt, Caryl E., Eli J. finkel, and Mandoka Kumashiro, “The Michelangelo Phenomenon,” Current Directions in Psychological Science (2009), vol. 18. M0. 6, 305-309.
Mattingly, Brent A., Gary W. Lewandowski, Jr. and Kevin P.McIntyre,” You Make Me a Better/Worse Person;” A two-dimensional model of relationship,” Personal Relationships (2014), 21, 176-190.
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/Slotter, Erica B. and Wendi L. Gardner,” The dangers of dating the ‘bad boy’ (or girl): When does romantic desire encourage us to take on the negative qualities of potential partners?” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2012), 48, 1173-1178.
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Linville, Patricia W. “Self-Complexity and Affective Extremity: Don’t Put All Your Cognitive Eggs in One Basket,” Social Cognition (1985) no.1., 94-120.