In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

The Eyes of Love

Do lovers’ eyes deceive them?

“Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.” William Shakespeare

"The loss of our illusions is the only loss from which we never recover." Quida

“Love isn't finding a perfect person. It's seeing an imperfect person perfectly.” Sam Keen

Romantic love is often characterized as being guided by idealizations (or positive illusions), sometimes even by blindness. This augments the partners’ wishes to be with each other over a long period of time. However, romantic relationships should be based upon reality, as this reality is where both of them will live their lives. The high divorce rate might be indicative of the fact that lovers are not completely blind, or at least do not remain blind forever. Does love depend to some extent on a degree of blindness, or can it thrive on accurate knowledge?

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There are empirical findings to support each view. Thus, people exaggerate the extent to which their real-life partners resemble archetypal ideals, while on the other hand, people assess with reasonable accuracy attributes such as attractiveness, status, and kindness or trustworthiness. It is probable that romantic relationships involve both accuracy and bias.

The seemingly opposing features are present not only in our evaluation of our beloveds, but also in the way we want them to evaluate us. As Fletcher and Kerr indicate: “Individuals in romantic relationships prefer to have their partners think of them in ways consistent with their self-perceptions, even when such attributions are negative. However, there is also evidence that partners welcome positive mean-level bias, especially in judgments that are central to intimate relationships, such as warmth, attractiveness, and status.” It seems that an explanation of this apparent paradox could indicate in which aspects these evaluations can be both positively biased and accurate.

Idealization

Idealization may be defined as an increase in positive perceptions and a decrease in negative perceptions toward one’s partner (and the relationship). Since idealization is typically not an accurate description of reality, disillusionment, which is a decline in positive perceptions and an increase in negative perceptions toward one’s partner (and the relationship), is often the outcome of idealization. Lovers may idealize their partners, but they are also subject to disillusionment once this idealization is found to be inaccurate.

Idealization is important for the continuation of romantic relationships, as it gives lovers greater motivation to be with their beloveds. Research has found idealization to be one of the strongest (negative) predictors of eventual breakup; that is, more idealization is associated with a lower likelihood of breakups. There is much evidence for the positive impact of idealization. Idealization is positively associated with the presence of love, trust, and similar important features of romantic relationships. It is also positively associated with the stability and length of romantic relationships. Marital idealization seems to be necessary for marital satisfaction—however, the two are not identical (see here).

Idealization is not a matter of blindness, but a more complex cognitive and evaluative process. From a cognitive viewpoint, idealization focuses our attention on the positive aspects of the partner and ignores, or takes less notice of, the negative aspects. Lovers are not blind, but their sight is often blurred (see here).

Idealization mainly consists of an evaluative activity in which the positive aspects are given greater weight, while hardly any weight is given to the negative ones. Moreover, idealization consists of attributing positive events to the partner and negative events to external circumstances; in disillusionment, there is a more objective attribution of both negative and positive events.

Idealization is of value in the initial stages of relationships, when people do not know the other person very well and so they can fill in the gaps with positive assumptions. However, the value of romantic idealization should not be judged merely in light of its positive role at the beginning of the relationship, but also in light of its more problematic function later on in the relationship.

Disillusionment

Idealization does not last forever: it declines the longer that the relationship continues (see here0). In the romantic realm, in which people are supposed to be very close to each other, there is a strong motivation to idealize each other. But in light of such closeness, it becomes increasing more difficult to disregard the facts; hence idealization can easily turn into disillusionment.

Disillusionment has negative consequences for marital relationships. Thus, marital disillusionment is the single most powerful predictor of divorce. Disillusionment is particularly evident during the transition from engagement to marriage. It was also found that couples who had been married for at least 7 years and then divorced frequently exhibit disillusionment—that is, high initial affection followed by a precipitous decline (see here and here).

The absence of illusions is in fact particularly evident in loveless marriages, which manifest marital disaffection associated with the gradual loss of an emotional attachment for the spouse. The beginning of the whole process of disaffection is a feeling of disillusionment that entails the reduction of idealization. Spouses stated that they were disillusioned with their partner; the reality of their marriage and their partner was not living up to the dreams, fantasies, and expectations they had prior to their marriage. Accordingly, spouses felt disappointed and deceived. When describing their feelings of disillusionment, spouses referred to radical changes in the partner's behavior after the wedding; however, for the most part what had actually changed was not the partner but the spouses' perceptions of their partner (see here).

In an interesting study, Niehuis and her colleagues claim that the generation of great passion depends, at least partially, on the idealization of one's partner. They further argue that loss of affection early in marriage results from two different types of courtship experience. In the one type of experience, premarital partners might rush blindly into marriage because their courtships have been very passionate but short. These couples may experience loss of affection early on in the marriage because more information about their partner becomes evident and the quality of their relationship suffers accordingly. In the second type of courtship experience, premarital partners might have been aware of problems in their premarital relationship, and this may have resulted in a very long courtship characterized by very little passion. These couples may have a false hope that their relationship would improve after marriage; the primary reason for loss of affection early in the marriage might be because this hope proves to be false. It seems then that too much or too little idealization has a negative impact upon loving relationships.

Combining accuracy with positive bias

In romantic love, we appreciate both idealization (positive bias) and accurate knowledge. How can we actually combine the two seemingly opposing features?

Lackenbauer and her colleagues have a helpful discussion on this issue. They argue that while people tend to express strong desires for authentic, open, and honest relationships, they do prefer their partners to view them in a charitable, positively biased fashion. This idealized positive attitude expresses their partners’ profound love to them, and the accurate attitude is valuable in order to prevent disillusionment when more information is provided.

The two opposing types of attitudes (positive and accurate) can refer to two complementary kinds of features, for example, absolute versus correlational and global versus specific.

Consider the following example. Mary rates her own traits as follows: beauty 6 (out of 10), kindness 8, and wisdom 7, and Tom rates them: 7, 9, 8. Marry will happily consider Tom as correlational accurate, but as looking at her through rose-colored glasses. Tom may also consider Marry as wonderful (10), but as not punctual (4). In this case he is accurate on the specific trait, and positively biased on the global trait (see here). Mary may perceive Tom’s behavior as expressing unconditional love and he accepts her in spite of her imperfections. Lackenbauer and her colleagues claim that this “positive bias translates into high levels of relationship satisfaction, low levels of ambivalence and relational conflict, and increased optimism for the future of the relationship.”

The optimal combination here is between accuracy concerning issues closely connected to actual states of affairs, and idealization concerning the more general attitude toward the beloved. While the first aspect has a significant cognitive element in it, in the second aspect, the evaluative element (which often cannot be true of false) is of greater weight. The rosy evaluative framework is the best mean for coping with the negative accurate knowledge and taking the best out of the imperfect person. As Lackenbauer and her colleagues summarize their findings: “The real hallmark of a relationship destined for success may be one where partners see each other for who they really are, but through the rosy lens of love.”

 Conclusion

Some kind of idealization is always present in profound romantic love. The idealization, however, should be moderate in its nature and referring more to the general framework of evaluating the person, rather than to specific traits which are easily detected. The positive general beliefs may turn out to be self-fulfilling. Stable and satisfying relationships reflect the intimate partners’ ability to see their imperfect partners in an idealized light. People who are in love for a prolonged period of time can maintain their idealized notion of their beloved for the whole period.

Idealization seems to be an initial ladder necessary for creating a new loving relationship. If the ladder is too low, we may not be able to experience profound love; if it is too high, there is the specter of disillusionment and disappointment once the ladder is removed. We can put on rose-colored glasses when we look at our beloved, but we should be careful that these are merely colored glasses and not ones that distort reality considerably.

It is incorrect to characterize a lover’s perspective as completely deluded or as fully accurate. Lovers’ sight takes place within a rosy framework which enables the lover to cope better with the beloved imperfections which are evident despite the rosy lens.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I know that my idealization of you is somewhat far from reality, and therefore I will not experience disillusionment when I get to know you better.”

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.

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