Committing your life to another person is a big step. How can you feel comfortable taking that risk, committing yourself to a partner you know is flawed? To overcome those insecurities, it's sometimes best to hold some “positive illusions” about your partner, even if they’re not accurate.
According to research by Sandra Murray and colleagues (1996), couples are more satisfied when both members of the couple view each another in an overly positive manner. In a survey, they asked couples to evaluate themselves and their partners on a series of personality traits and found that the most satisfied people rated their partners more positively than the partners rated themselves. The researchers argued that these “positive illusions” allow us to deal with the inevitable doubts and conflicts that surface in a relationship, by building up a store of good will.
That doesn’t mean that love is blind. These happy couples are not wearing blinders, but rather rose-colored glasses. They notice their partners’ flaws, but find ways to minimize the importance of those flaws and to accentuate their partners' assets. In a study by Murray and Holmes (1999), subjects were asked to write about their partners’ strengths and weaknesses. One subject, for example, discussed her partner’s supportiveness and highlighted its importance, saying it was the reason she would never doubt his love. When it came to negative traits, many participants found ways to discover something good in the fault or to downplay it. One woman, when discussing her partner’s fault of overreacting to things, said that she realized that “he does this is to protect me.” Another woman who complained of her partner’s impatience qualified the statement by adding, “but he tries and that is really all that matters.”
Before you put on those rose-colored glasses yourself, be aware of other research indicating that it may not always be best to idealize your partner. Sometimes it’s better to be more realistic. Research on self-verification theory suggests that people feel more intimate with partners who agree with their own self-views, even if those views are negative (Swann, De La Ronde, & Hixon, 1994). People like the emotional high of receiving positive feedback, but if that praise feels incongruent with their own self-image, they are likely to come to the conclusion that their partner doesn’t truly know or understand them.
So when is idealization most beneficial?
Idealizing your partner is most effective when it is related to global, rather than specific traits (Neff & Karney, 2005). For example, it may be easy to idealize your partner on a general, global trait like reliability, but harder to be unrealistic about a more specific trait, like punctuality. In other words, you may be able to view your consistently tardy partner as reliable, overall, but you’re not going to be able to see him as punctual. Other research, though, suggests that these global traits may be important because they are more central to relationship satisfaction. It’s more important, for example, that you see your partner as attractive and successful than as patient or organized (Boyes & Fletcher, 2007). My own research suggests that an accurate assessment of these less central traits may be especially beneficial when couples experience conflict (Seidman & Burke, in press).
Positive illusions can help to hold relationships together, but they could be harmful in some cases, especially if holding such beliefs causes someone to justify abusive behavior (“He lashes out when he’s jealous, but it’s just because he loves me so much.”).
Further, idealizing your partner is only effective if you’re happy in the first place. For couples who are already in trouble, trying to minimize faults can actually make things worse (McNulty, O’Mara, & Karney, 2008).
While it can be beneficial to be aware of your partner’s specific faults, these perceptions should be grounded in a more positive global perception of your partner, so that these faults don’t loom too large. Love isn’t blindness. It’s merely a set of cognitive distortions.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior.
- Boyes, A. D., & Fletcher, G. O. (2007). Metaperceptions of bias in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 286-306. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.116
- McNulty, J. K., O’Mara, E. M., & Karney, B. R. (2008). Benevolent cognitions as a strategy of relationship maintenance: “Don’t’ sweat the small stuff”….but it is not all small stuff. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 631-646. doi: 10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1681
- Murray, S. L., & Holmes, J. G. (1999). The (mental) ties that bind: Cognitive structures that predict relationship resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1228-1244. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1248
- Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (1996). The benefits of positive illusions: Idealization and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 79-98. doi: 10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.199
- Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2005). To know you is to love you: The implications of global adoration and specific accuracy for marital relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 480-497. doi: 10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.520
- Seidman, G., & Burke, C. T. (in press). Partner enhancement vs. verification and emotional responses to daily conflict. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi:10.1177/0265407514533227
- Swann, W. B., De La Ronde, C., & Hixon, J. G. (1994). Authenticity and positive strivings in marriage and courtship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 857-869. doi: 10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2067