Being Your True Self in a Relationship Is Less Important Than Being Your Best Self

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There’s a lot to be said for having a partner that “gets” you: Research has shown that feeling understood in a relationship makes for a happier pairing. Not that anyone actually in a relationship needed research to tell them this — if you can’t be yourself around your significant other, it feels fair to ask, can your bond really be that strong?

Except: Maybe there’s something better to aim for. According to a study recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and highlighted by Christian Jarrett in BPS Research Digest, feeling like your most authentic self isn’t necessarily what makes the relationship feel authentic; instead, relationships are stronger and more satisfying when they make you feel like the best, most aspirational version of who you can be.

In a series of surveys, the study authors asked participants to describe their “true selves,” their “ideal selves,” and their relationships. In some cases, volunteers were also asked to contemplate how much they acted like either of these versions around their partner. Across the board, the researchers found, people who said they behaved like their ideal selves with their significant other also rated the relationship as more “authentic” than those who (a) said they couldn’t be their ideal selves, or (b) said the relationship pushed them to be their true selves.

“In other words, at least when it comes to feelings of authenticity in a relationship, what seems to matter the most is not that we can be ourselves,” Jarrett wrote, ‘but that we can behave as the kind of person we strive to be” — a conclusion, he added, that fits nicely with a concept called the “Michelangelo phenomenon”:

This is the finding that we tend to make more progress towards our ideal selves when our partner has the same traits that we aspire to have ourselves, through encouragement or acting by example. The name of the concept invokes the idea of our partners helping to reveal our ideal selves, like a sculptor gradually reveals the form of a statue. These new findings suggest that if you have a partner like this, not only will you make more progress toward the kind of person you’d like to be, but that you’ll also have stronger feelings of authenticity in that relationship. 

Whether or not your partner gets you, in other words, is one issue; which you they get is another question entirely.

In Relationships, Be Your Best Self, Not Your Truest Self