The Michelangelo Effect
Love isn’t an emotion or an instinct–it’s an art. –Mae West
Done with conviction and commitment, the way great artists approach their masterpieces, our loving relationships sculpt us into the highest and best form of ourselves. This is their only job and their highest purpose. Through love we entrust our loved ones to mirror and elicit from us the aspirations and values that we have expressed so that the commitment to the relationship transmutes into a commitment to ourselves. The late Caryl Rusbult, coined the term the Michelangelo effect to describe this dynamic of close intimate relationships in her 30 plus years of research. Her studies demonstrated that love thrived and endured when the relationship’s meaning was interpreted through both partner’s ability to focus on and achieve the personal growth that each held dear.
Michelangelo approached his art with this same eye of love. He said “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” His work of setting free the figures that were sleeping inside the stone is the embodiment of love as art. His mastery and genius was the product of what he himself called: “eternal patience” which reflects volumes of truth about what it takes to make love work in our lives.
Loving relationships of all kinds, whether with romantic committed partners, parents, children, siblings or friendships are the most gentle and effective teachers that life offers us to become the person we aspire to be. Accepting the flaws in the people we love and working with them is the same sculpting work that Michelangelo faced within his blocks of stone. Like a master stone cutter, we learn to discern minor imperfections from the deeper flaws that the “eternally patient” hand of love is able to integrate into the greater beauty of the piece. We create beauty from the inherent difficulties of loving the flaws and imperfections in each of us.
As a mother of teens now, I remember how when my kids were small, I perceived my job of parenting in terms of sculpting my children to uncover the beauty and goodness inside each of them. Now though, with hindsight at 20-20, I realize that my love for them was sculpting me, at least as much and probably more than I was ever able to shape them. This is because loving is first an inside job, especially in parenting. My own personal growth work has always been the primary communicator for my children and so it is with our lovers, parents or friends. Those who have loved me have continuously reflected back to me where I was true to myself and even more painfully when I wasn’t.
The work of being sculpted into our highest selves is not for the faint hearted. Extending the metaphor of cutting away the rough edges of stone that we use to defend our hearts can feel searing and hard to distinguish the loss of what is real and necessary from our ego attachments. I have been suffering these losses as my relationships to my children bend away from my will towards their more powerful independence. Learning the work of eternal patience with these new people, my teenagers remains a daily lesson, and one that I can best integrate while focused on the work of art which is my own heart.