If ignorance is bliss, then delusion is even better — if you’re in a new marriage, anyways.
So says new research from investigators at the University at Buffalo, who examined 193 newly-married couples over three years to see what kinds of variables might predict greater marital satisfaction.
How could this be? Weren’t we always told the common wisdom — that we needed to be realistic in our relationships, and not look for that Knight in Shining Armor who comes to our rescue (or a Maiden trapped in a castle tower who needs rescuing)?
Apparently the common wisdom may need to be revisited, because continuing to idealize your partner long after the glow of the wedding fades away seems to help keep you happy.
Read on to learn more…
This isn’t the first research to suggest that there’s some irrationality that’s good for our relationships, as the authors (Murray et al., 2011) note in reviewing previous research:
In fact, research on positive illusions in relationships points to the benefits of seeing one’s partner generously. For instance, people in satisfying marital relationships see their own relationship as superior to other people’s relationships. They also see virtues in their partners that are not obvious to anyone else. People in stable dating relationships even redefine what qualities they want in an ideal partner to match the qualities they perceive in their own partner.
In this charitable light, seeing a partner as a mirror of one’s ideal partner might function as a generous filter that affords the optimism needed to cope effectively with the challenges that come with time. For instance, as interdependence increases, partners behave selfishly and disappoint one another more often. People who see their partner as a better match to their ideals might perceive such transgressive behaviors as more forgivable. Such charitable perceptions might motivate them to take more constructive remedial action.
We adapt our perceptions and needs based upon the realities of our partner. We love the things in them that others just don’t get or see. And we work to see them in the best positive light to keep our own cognitive dissonance at bay — we don’t want to believe we could make a truly awful relationship choice.
In the current research, the 193 couples’ relationship satisfaction was measured at seven different times over 3 years, with a multitude of surveys and questionnaires that tapped into marital satisfaction, depression and anxiety, and how they viewed themselves, their partners, and an idealized version of their partner.
The key to the investigators’ research is the Interpersonal Qualities Scale. This 20-item measure tapped “perceptions of targets’ positive (i.e., kind and affectionate, self-assured, sociable/extraverted, intelligent, open and disclosing, witty and humorous, patient, rational, understanding, warm, responsive, tolerant and accepting) and negative (i.e., critical and judgmental, lazy, thoughtless, controlling and dominant, moody, distant, complaining, immature) interpersonal qualities. […P]articipants rated themselves, their partner, and their ideal or most preferred partner on these attributes (on a scale from 0, not at all, to 8, completely characteristic).”
By comparing our own self-perceptions with how our partner sees us, the researchers were able to distinguish whether those traits and qualities were realistic or unrealistic.
What the researchers initially found isn’t too surprising — marital satisfaction declined for all partners as time progressed. The longer you’re married in your first, new marriage, generally the unhappier you are in your relationship. This is likely due to the fact that marriage itself is idealized, and the realities of married life are a little less exciting than what we envision.
But then the researchers looked at unrealistic idealization in the relationship. After analyzing all of the data from these surveys, they found that those partners who unrealistically idealized their partner were significantly more happy in their marriage than those who didn’t. Unrealistic idealization significantly slowed the decline of marital satisfaction.
They also wanted to check to see if there could be an alternative hypothesis that might explain these findings. Maybe partners in such relationships were simply better people at the onset. Maybe it’s just general positiveness — you know, like being happy all the time for no particular reason — that explained these findings. But when the researchers looked at these alternative hypotheses, the data didn’t support them. It was the idealization of our partner that accounted for this discrepancy in marital satisfaction.
Now, as the researchers are quick to point out, this is just correlational data. It could be that people who are in more satisfied marital relationships simply engage in more unrealistic idealization of their partner — but that such idealization doesn’t actually cause a happier marriage. The researchers — and the data — can’t say which way this relationship really goes; more research would be needed to verify this claim.
I’ll leave on the authors’ conclusions:
The protective effects of unrealistic idealization emerged despite the fact that individuals who were initially the happiest generally had further to fall. That is, people who were more satisfied initially experienced steeper declines in satisfaction. Also, further analyses revealed that people who initially idealized their partner more also experienced steeper declines in the perception that their partner met their ideals. Despite these evident risks of disappointment, initial idealization predicted sustained satisfaction over the course of marriage.
Also, the protective effect of idealization emerged in analyses using an indirect measure—the tendency to ascribe the same specific traits to one’s own partner and one’s ideal partner. […] The findings thus speak to the prevalence and power of positive perceptual biases in relationships.
Idealizing a partner might have protective effects because people have the power to shape their romantic fates through their behavior. Indeed, the behaviors that sustain relationships (e.g., being supportive) and the behaviors that undermine relationships (e.g., being critical) are controllable ones. Therefore, believing that a partner reflects one’s hopes might predict continued satisfaction because it fosters the optimism that is needed to behave well and cope admirably with the costs and challenges that come with interdependence.
Murray, SL, et al. (2011). Tempting Fate or Inviting Happiness? Unrealistic Idealization Prevents the Decline of Marital Satisfaction. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797611403155