Feeling authentic in a relationship – that is, feeling like you are able to be yourself, rather than acting out of character – is healthy, not just for the relationship, but for your wellbeing in general. This makes sense: after all, putting on a fake show can be exhausting. But dig a little deeper and things get more complicated because there are different ways to define who “you” really are.
Is the real you how you actually think and behave, for instance? Or, taking a more dynamic perspective, is it fairer to say that the true you is the person you aspire to be: what psychologists call your “ideal self”?
For a paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Muping Gan and Serena Chen asked members of the public about this and 70 per cent of them thought that the ability to be your actual self was more important for feeling authentic in a relationship than being able to be your ideal self.
But contrary to this folk wisdom, across several studies, the researchers actually found evidence for the opposite – that is, feelings of authenticity in a relationship seem to arise not from being our actual selves in the relationship, but from feeling that we can be our best or ideal self.
The researchers made this discovery across several surveys conducted on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website, each involving hundreds of participants of varying ages and in a range of different relationships, from the relatively new to decades-long.
In one survey, participants answered questions about how they acted in their relationship, described what they considered to be their actual self, their ideal self, and they also answered questions about their feelings of authenticity in that relationship (for instance, they rated how much they could “be themselves” when with their partner and how they much they “felt artificial”).
The results showed that feelings of authenticity in the relationship were higher when the way they behaved in the relationship more closely matched what they considered to be their ideal self. This association stayed true even when factoring out the contribution of other more general relationship factors, like relationship satisfaction and commitment. In contrast, being able to act in the relationship in ways similar to how they’d described their actual self did not correlate with feelings of authenticity in the relationship.
In further surveys, the researchers asked participants to perform short thought experiments before measuring their feelings of relationship authenticity. For example, in one survey some participants spent time thinking about ways that they are able to act like their ideal selves in their relationship whereas other participants spent time thinking about the ways they act with their partner that are different from their ideal self. In another case, participants spent time thinking about how the way they act with their partner is the same as their actual self, while others thought about how they are unable to act like their actual selves when with their partner.
The outcomes of these different thought experiments were clear: thinking about the ability to be one’s ideal self in the relationship increased subsequent feelings of relationship authenticity (and thinking of not be able to be one’s ideal self had the converse effect). Meanwhile, thinking about the ability to be one’s actual self in the relationship did not increase feelings of relationship authenticity.
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, as such, but that we can behave as the kind of person we strive to be.
This chimes in an interesting way with another concept in relationship research known as 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.
Gan and Chen conclude their paper by suggesting that it might be time to revise the authenticity trope in romantic movies, such as when Mac in Juno says: “Look, in my opinion, the best thing you can do is find a person who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you…”. Perhaps in the future, the researchers write, “a movie character will dispense advice more along the lines of: “Look, in my opinion, the best thing you can do is find a person who you feel like you are your ‘best you’ with.”