Go ahead – pretend you’re better than you are.
You know how, when you’re first falling in love with someone, you try really hard to only be your best self around them? In hopes of keeping the magic alive, you do your best to keep your terrible temper at bay, never mention your tendency toward depression, and play down the jealous streak that’s been the downfall of more than one of your previous relationships.
As time goes by and you start spending nights at each other’s places, you do your best to hide any shameful personal habits that might scare your new lover off. Your apartment has never been cleaner, you’re in great shape because you’re always motivated to hit the gym, and in general, you’re doing a terrific job of playing the part of a normal, healthy, fun person who is good at relationships.
Then, gradually, you both start to relax. You discover that he really likes to unwind after work by changing into rarely-laundered sweatpants and playing video games for hours on end; he witnesses one of the rage-filled, invective-hurling phone conversations you have with your mother on a regular basis. You both stop going to the gym, one of you sinks into a depressive episode because you stopped taking your meds, and one day it dawns on you that you haven’t felt those butterflies of nervous excitement around your partner for who-knows-how-long.
But that’s totally normal, right? After all, you can’t keep up that normal-person ruse for too long. Being your real self around your partner is the key to a great relationship, isn’t it? Maybe not…
Who are you?
When considering the question of who you are, there’s more than one ‘you’ to think about. There’s the ‘you’ that you are at work, the ‘you’ that you with your family, and the ‘you’ that you are at home, when no one is looking. Most of us consider that last one our ‘real’ self, or our most authentic self. After all, that’s who we are when we’re not trying to impress anyone, or put on an act. But there’s also another self – our aspirational self.
Our aspirational selves are the people we’d most like to be. You know, the one who goes to the gym and doesn’t fight with her mother, or get jealous, or lose her temper. Your aspirational self is pretty much the person you strive to be when you’re newly in love, before you relax into being the ‘real you.’ But get this: a study published in the February 2017 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that people are more satisfied with their relationships, and those relationships are stronger, when they feel like their best, or aspirational selves, around their partners.
Keeping it real
Generally, we don’t let our freak flags fly on the first date (although maybe we should). But there’s a middle ground between trying too hard, to the point where you’re exhausted from faking it, and letting it all hang out. And that middle ground might just be the ‘ideal self.’
In the study, which Christian Jarrett wrote about in the British Psychology Society Research Digest, researchers asked subjects to describe their ‘true selves’ and their ‘ideal selves.’ They then asked them how much they behaved like these different selves around their partners. Overwhelmingly, people who said they more often acted like their better selves around their partners rated their relationships as ‘more authentic’ than people who said they couldn’t be their best selves around their partners – either because they didn’t feel comfortable, or because their partners encouraged them not to be the best versions of themselves.
“When it comes to feelings of authenticity in a relationship,” writes Jarrett, “what seems to matter the most is not that we can be ourselves, but that we can behave as the kind of person we strive to be.”
The Michelangelo phenomenon
The interesting thing about this finding is that when the study’s authors initially asked survey participants what they thought was more important in a relationship, 70 per cent of them said they thought a relationship in which they could be their ‘real’ selves would feel more authentic, and presumably be stronger, than a relationship in which they acted like their ideal selves. But the study found the exact opposite to be true.
This could be due to what relationship researches have dubbed ‘the Michelangelo phenomenon.’ This refers to the finding that people do a better job of becoming their ideal selves when they see their partner as an example to aspire to. In other words, when your partner pulls you up instead of pulling you down, you’re more likely to make progress toward being the person you want to be – and you’ll feel better about your relationship, too.
Many of us have probably had the experience of having a ‘misery loves company’ friend. That’s the person who’s happy to hang out with you when things aren’t going great – you’re fresh off a breakup, or your job is sucking the life out of you. But when you’re doing well, that friend isn’t interested in hearing about it. Imagine that same thing happening with a romantic partner. It’s not a good look.
So, next time you’re in that phase of a relationship where you’re about to let yourself go and expose your darker side, consider holding back. If your partner pushes you to work a little harder, behave a little better, and become a better ‘you,’ it might be a good thing. Being your best self isn’t just healthy for you – it might be the best thing for your relationship.
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Comment: Which ‘self’ do you feel like in your relationship?