Psychology researcher Eli Finkel, PhD, likes to describe a hypothetical couple named Dave and Jasmine. Dave always dreamed of being charming and outgoing, but self-doubt made him a wallflower. Then he met Jasmine. She laughed at his jokes and eagerly set up his one-liners: "Tell the one about the guy who..." With Jasmine cheering him on, Dave became more confident. Now he's a new man—the life of every party.
This kind of transformation—in which one partner encourages the other to become the person he or she wants to be—can have powerful effects, says Finkel, associate professor of social psychology at Northwestern University. He and his team recently studied the process by which partners sculpt each other, known as the Michelangelo phenomenon, and according to their research, it can improve the health of the relationship and each partner's happiness level.
"Personal growth is satisfying—and having a partner help with that growth makes the relationship satisfying," says Finkel. But the point here isn't to "fix" what you perceive as your partner's flaws. "The Michelangelo effect works only if your ideal image of your partner dovetails with his own, and vice versa," he says. "In the case of Jasmine and Dave, she helped him acquire the qualities he wanted to acquire."
Partners can help each other do that by being explicit about their goals and ambitions. Have a frank talk about who you want to be in ten years—whether it's more outgoing, more patient, or more adventurous, suggests Finkel. Doing so can help ensure that you understand and support each other's vision for "how I see my best life." Moving out, but staying married