In Memoriam: In life and death, a scientist brings out the best in others

Relationship scholar Caryl Rusbult's colleagues mourn her loss and celebrate her scientific legacy

Caryl Rusbult was the queen of close relationships. For more than 30 years, and for the past six years at Vrije University in Amsterdam, she studied how some men and women form lasting, supportive marriages. Rusbult’s work led her to conclude that close partners are interpersonal artists, sculpting one another’s strengths and weaknesses so as to bring out the best in each other. She called this the Michelangelo Phenomenon, a reference to the great Renaissance sculptor who said that he used a chisel to release ideal figures from blocks of stone in which they slumbered.

RELATIONSHIP SCULPTOR Caryl Rusbult (1952-2010) left an inspirational legacy to scientists who study marriage and other close relationships. H. Reis

Rusbult was a sculptor herself, shaping the scientific lives of dozens of psychology graduate students and many colleagues. At the end of January, a far-flung tribe of relationship researchers gathered in Las Vegas, at the annual meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, and shared their tears as well as their joyous memories of Rusbult. She had died January 27, the day before the meeting started, at age 57, attended by her husband, Leiden University political scientist David Lowery.

It was not an unexpected demise. Rusbult had e-mailed colleagues in November 2007 to tell them of a cancer diagnosis that gave her perhaps a few months to live. She proceeded to become “a miracle patient,” says her friend and occasional research collaborator, psychologist Harry Reis of the University of Rochester, maintaining a busy professional schedule for more than two years.

Reis and Rusbult belonged to an informal group of investigators who dubbed themselves “the gang of five.” These influential relationship researchers, who hung out together at scientific conferences over the past 15 years, included Yale’s Margaret Clark, University of Waterloo’s John Holmes and Stony Brook University’s Arthur Aron.

“Caryl was incredibly charismatic and often attracted a crowd,” Reis recalls. “If this was the 19th century and we still had salons, she would have run one.”

And the discussion would have been lively. Shortly after meeting one another in the early 1980s, Reis and Rusbult got into a fierce debate at a psychology conference about what people really want in close relationships. Reis championed emotional intimacy. Rusbult insisted that partners want to coordinate their behavior so they can achieve goals that each holds dear.

“Ten years and much research later, I was convinced that she was right,” Reis says.

As a graduate student, Rusbult had been exposed to a mathematical model for testing predictions about how people cooperate in groups to achieve goals. She wanted to study husbands and wives in the same way.

That led to the development of the Michelangelo Phenomenon, “the capstone to her brilliant career,” according to psychologist William Ickes of the University of Texas at Arlington, a long-time Rusbult friend.

Real-life dating and married couples provided her team with glimpses of the Michelangelo Phenomenon in action. Time and again, romantic pairings succeeded if each partner detected the other’s self-reported dreams and aspirations and found ways to guide him or her toward those goals. This process hinged on identifying and working with a partner’s personal flaws, just as a sculptor incorporates irregularities in a block of stone into a masterpiece.

Two of Rusbult’s former graduate students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill say that she exemplified the Michelangelo Phenomenon in her dealings with them. Rusbult guided each scientist-in-the-making toward career goals that they at first had difficulty articulating.

“I was lost during my first year of grad school in 1999,” remarks psychologist Eli Finkel of Northwestern University. Identifying voids in the scientific literature and framing a research program present daunting challenges to many doctoral candidates, Finkel included.

Rusbult encouraged Finkel to help her design procedures for a study of how romantic partners forgive one another for transgressions. He prepared a few possibilities on his own and presented them to her. “She was so delighted that I took the initiative,” he says. After a thorough discussion his ideas were discarded, “but I left feeling that I was starting to get how to design studies that can have an impact.” Finkel still studies forgiveness.

Madoka Kumashiro, now a psychologist at the University of London, became Rusbult’s student in 2001 and planned to study how personality traits influence romantic relationships. “That wasn’t Caryl’s main interest, but she made such an amazing impression on me when I met her that my gut told me I’d do well with her.” So much so, in fact, that Kumashiro will now direct her own team in studying how the Michelangelo Phenomenon applies both to leadership and to marriages.

Last December, Finkel and Kumashiro flew to Amsterdam and transferred Rusbult’s unpublished data from married and dating couples into computer files that will be made available to interested researchers. Rusbult stipulated that she did not want to be included as a coauthor on further papers derived from this data “so that new researchers will be encouraged to be as creative as they like in their analyses,” Reis notes.

That intellectually nurturing attitude, even in the face of death, screams out “Michelangelo Phenomenon” to Finkel. “The Michelangelo Phenomenon can operate without one partner being physically present,” he muses. “Over the last few days, I’ve taken comfort in knowing that the end of Caryl’s life doesn’t mean that she won’t continue to help me grow and improve.”

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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