In his play The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare wrote, “But love is blind, and lovers cannot see / The pretty follies that themselves commit” (2.6.36-37).
Clearly, people have been perceiving love as a force incapable of perceiving the flaws of others for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Even a verse in the Bible states that “[love] keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:5-6).
But here lies the conundrum: how can love both “rejoice in the truth” and “keep no record of wrongs”? Wouldn’t ignoring the wrongdoings of love be an untruthful perception of it?
And yet this is the theory behind the love-is-blind bias.
The love-is-blind bias describes the tendency to perceive those we love (particularly those we love romantically) in an extra-positive, but also less realistic, light. These so-called “positive illusions” were first specifically analyzed by psychologists Shelley Taylor and Johnathon Brown in 1988. They concluded that an individual’s blindness to another person’s flaws is actually correlated with greater psychological well-being of that individual.
Since this discovery, many researchers have corroborated the beneficial effects of positive illusions in romantic relationships. However, as this topic unfolded, research has also questioned the flip side of love: what happens after disillusionment? After all, positive illusions can only take you so far.
Although positive illusions, or experiences of the “love-is-blind bias,” can be correlated with level of satisfaction in the relationship, Swami et al. (2009) discovered a negative relationship between the degree of blind love and relationship length. This suggests that as a relationship progresses and an individual gets to know her or his partner better (or possibly with decreasing satisfaction derived from the relationship), the love-is-blind bias may decrease in strength.
But if this glowing perspective decreases as time passes, wouldn’t the perceived quality of the relationship also decline?
After the positive illusions have diminished, one might start to look for better alternatives to the person they once thought was “perfect.” At this point, the satisfaction and commitment to the relationship would also be compromised and the relationship might be worse off than if those positive illusions had never existed in the first place.
In a more recent study, Swami and his colleagues discovered a positive correlational relationship between positive illusions in relationships and certain types of jealousy, especially anxious jealousy (2012). Anxious jealousy refers to a process where an individual ruminates about the possibility of a mate’s infidelity, and experiences feelings of anxiety, suspicion, worry, and distrust (Barelds & Dijkstra, 2006). After all, if you perceive your partner as perfect, wouldn’t you be concerned that others perceive him this way as well?
But what about even more extreme cases of disillusionment? What happens after Adam betrays Eve?
In cases of relationship betrayal, commitment to the relationship, rather than positive illusions of the other, tends to be the strongest motivation for forgiveness and continuing the relationship (Finkel et al., 2002). After all, without true commitment to each other, a relationship based on positive illusions alone is merely a fatuous love and cannot be sustained in the long term.
This situation certainly holds true for many celebrity relationships, which are typically short-lived and end in some sort of grand catastrophe such as infidelity. Since celebrities are the ultimate icons of positive illusions, it’s easy to understand how a relationship could be built on false impressions and quickly become unsustainable.
In general, it seems that positive illusions might be beneficial during the “honeymoon” phase of the relationship. But after that stage is over, acceptance of the other’s flaws, not just overlooking them, is truly what will sustain a healthy and prosperous relationship.
Barelds, D. P. H., & Dijkstra, P. (2006). Reactive, Anxious and Possessive Forms of Jealousy and Their Relation to Relationship Quality Among Heterosexuals and Homosexuals. Journal of Homosexuality, 51(3), 183-198. doi: 10.1300/J082v51n03_09
Swami, V., Inamdar, S., Steiger, S., Nader, I. W., Pietschnig, J., Tran, U. S., & Voracek, M. (2012). A dark side of positive illusions? Associations between the love-is-blind bias and the experience of jealousy. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(6), 796-800. dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2012.06.004
Swami, V., Stieger, S., Haubner, T., Voracek, M., & Furnham, A. (2009). Evaluating the physical attractiveness of oneself and one’s romantic partner: Individual and relationship correlates of the love-is-blind bias. Journal Of Individual Differences, 30(1), 35-43. doi:10.1027/1614-0001.30.1.35
Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103(2), 193-210.