The notion of having a “better half” is as problematic as it is widespread. Having a romantic partnership in which one person is responsible for the other’s ability to reach their full potential suggests that individuals can’t effectively achieve their goals without a warm body sleeping next to them. This definition of the better half is a recipe for codependency — where one partner sacrifices all for, and ends up defined by, their relationship. Instead, social scientists push couples to aim for mutual interdependence, meaning no one is beholden to the other for their goals, but both help the other achieve them. It’s a rather dizzying definition and one reason experts have come up with a neat-and-tidy term for it: the Michelangelo phenomenon, wherein partners don’t create greatness out of nothing, but “sculpt” what’s already there. And that’s how a partner can bring out the best in you — no sacrifice necessary.
“Michelangelo created sculptures from stone but felt that it was important not to impose his perspective on the stone,” Marisa Cohen, a psychology professor and relationship coach, tells Fatherly. “To tie this to relationships, your partner shouldn’t define you, but allow you to reveal yourself. While working together in an interdependent manner, one partner is allowing the other to become their ideal self and supporting them along the way.”
The Michelangelo effect stems from the theory of interdependence in psychology, which states that all relationships are a mutual exchange and costs and benefits. The best relationships are associated with greater gains and the worst relationships with substantial losses, according to the theory, and both spouses make sacrifices for the other that are comparable. In doing this, partnered people give themselves somewhat of an edge over single individuals. Research shows that people who report higher levels of relationship satisfaction are more likely to meet the goals they set, and other studies indicate that having a conscientious spouse predicts career success.
While interdependence sounds a lot like codependency on the surface, the two have essential differences. Interdependent relationships enable individual growth through balance, whereas codependent ones hinder it with a lack thereof. For instance, if someone wants to start a business and they’re in a codependent marriage, they’ll likely be too exhausted by the demands of their spouse and stress in their relationship to even entertain that idea, let alone execute it. But in a healthy, interdependent relationship a person would have the support of a sacrificing spouse to help achieve this goal, and that would be reciprocated to help them reach their own potential. Interdependence is basically how psychologists talk about being a good teammate — those whose team scores the most are also good at making assists.
The difference between the codependency and interdependency comes down to relationship satisfaction, relationship affirmation, and secure attachment, Weltfreid says. If couples are generally happy within their relationships and not terrified of the other one leaving, or not putting one foot out the door themselves, interdependence becomes increasingly more likely. Security in relationships takes time to build, which suggests that the Michelangelo phenomenon may be more powerful in long-term relationships. Still, since the effect is driven by variables that fluctuate, such as relationship satisfaction and partner affirmation, it takes work to maintain over time. So it’s not as simple as saying that a good spouse makes someone better. They have to reciprocate in order for Michelangelo to show up.
“In healthy interdependent relationships, both partners are able to maintain their autonomy while also depending on one another for care, support, and nurturance of their aspirations,” Weltfreid says. “The Michelangelo phenomenon occurs when partners influence one another in the direction of their ideal selves.”