In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Positive Illusions in Romantic Love: "You're the Nearest Thing to Heaven"

If you don't believe in miracles, then you aren't realistic.

I'd rather have a Paper Doll to call my own than have a fickle-minded real live girl. (The Mills Brothers)

I may not be a great actress but I've become the greatest at screen orgasms. Ten seconds of heavy breathing, roll your head from side to side, simulate a slight asthma attack and die a little. (Candice Bergen)

Positive illusions, namely, illusions which describe us in a positive manner, are important to our well-being. Unlike the view (common among many psychologists) that contact with reality is a hallmark of mental health, illusions are greatly important in our everyday life.

There is no doubt that positive illusions are central to romantic love. Lovers are often blind to the beloved's negative traits and tend to create an idealized image of the beloved. We often love the idealized object rather than the real one. Indeed people say that they are living their dreams with their beloved. Sustaining a sense of security often requires weaving an elaborate, and often fictional, story that either embellishes a partner's virtues and overlooks, or at least minimizes various faults. Accordingly, some happily married couples avoid unpleasant topics, lie about their feelings, and deny their own or their spouse's statements. Enhancing a partner's qualities seems critical for maintaining the belief that this partner is the "right one" and for protecting the relationship from doubt. This attitude is not that of faking, but rather of "making belief," or "as if" attitudes. Like other ideologies, the Romantic ideology encourages its believers to take the attitude of "If you don't believe in miracles, then you aren't realistic."

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

The importance of positive illusions in romantic relationships does not imply that there is no place in such relationships for accurate understanding of the partners' real strengths and frailties. It is obvious that profound illusions can easily ruin the entire relationship. A love based on the premise that all of the partner's traits are perfect will inevitably prove to be fragile. In fact, spouses who entertain such a premise put their partners in the uncomfortable position of having to live up to an identity that by definition they can never uphold. Moreover, positive illusions can easily lead to self-deception. Many divorcees testify that they cannot understand how they overlooked their partner's characteristics. This failure is not necessarily due to misperception of the beloved's traits; it may stem from attributing too little weight to these characteristics. Most married people are able to indicate their partner's character defects, physical defects, and bad habits. Robin, a married woman in her forties, who has had several affairs, says she never let her lovers speak about transforming their relationship into a formal, public one: "I know very well that such exciting relationships can exist only in an emotional euphoria that can only be found within our (illusory) bubble." (Cited in In the Name of Love).

Imagination is also central in sexual desires, as it offers an effective way of coping with personal limitations, normative boundaries, and external constraints. One can always fantasize the most outrageous encounters done in exactly the way one wants and with precisely those who one most desires. Given the affective powers of imagination, it is no wonder that many women say they can achieve orgasm by fantasy alone, with no physical stimulation at all. In Helen Fisher's study of lovers (Why We Love?), about 70 percent said that they fantasize while making love.

The play between imagination and reality is complex. Consider, for example, the fact that while having sex many people fantasize about a different person than their current partner. This may be the case even when the person in their arms is the one they really want to be with. In these circumstances, people improve their affective state by imagining what they consider to be a better alternative. The woman who fantasizes about another man-even a faceless man-while having sex with her partner may love her partner, but still he is not the person she craves to have sex with. The wish to have the delightful feeling of sexual satisfaction often requires the help of the imagination, which transforms the current mundane circumstances into what is perceived to be a heavenly experience. The role of positive illusions is even much greater in cybersex. Thus, a 32-year-old woman, married for the second time, claims: "The sexual release from cybering has been a great experience and the arousal factor is just magnificent" (Cited in Love Online).

Positive illusions may help people to fly together "on the wings of love," but quite often the wings are not strong enough to carry them both together.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

more...

Subscribe to In the Name of Love

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?