The Young and the Restless

Exploring the psychology of 20-something relationships

How We Turn Our Frogs Into Princes

The powerful phenomenon that convinces us that our partners are the best.

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It's easy to recognize when you've got it bad—saucer eyes and drunken smiles, unwarranted dollars thrown in tip jars, a go-with-the-flow attitude, and street serenades straight out of Say Anything are typical tells. Most of all though, you know you've got it bad when you ignore your new lover's awful shoes, botched haircuts, or bizarre comments. You hide such comments in particular—"I didn't leave my room for a week when Sugar Ray broke up”—in a locked box in the back of your mind, far from the reach of judgmental friends. But qualities others see as flaws or red flags you may call unique or quirky.

The phenomenon of idealization facilitates this process.

While our hearts are submerged in the glory of attraction, idealization may creep into our cerebral systems. Certain perceptions have a powerful impact on our relationship satisfaction. Choosing to adopt a specific perspective about someone, or subconsciously reconstructing our memories, may facilitate or decrease our overall happiness with our new partner. We're all prone idealization. Just last week, I idealized that I had consumed the best sandwich of my life until my astute roommate pointed out that it was 2-week-old turkey on bread with a questionable expiration date. We are especially prone to idealizing moments of our past. One friend recently told me, “Last year around this time I was juggling three boyfriends." Really? I could have sworn that this time last year you didn't leave your couch so you could finish the first season of “The Vampire Diaries.”

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It can be easy to reconstruct our memories in order to adjust to our current situation—and sometimes these reconstructed memories can even help us in ways we didn't realize.

Research has shown that most of us desire a partner who is, among other things, attractive, trustworthy, warm, successful, and intelligent. However, despite what every romantic comedy would try to tell you, it's difficult to find a partner with all these characteristics. Luckily for us, our memories, and the power of idealization, can help us think we've found someone with all of these qualities anyway. Just like rom-coms are edited to ensure that the heroine's frog turns into a prince by the final credits, our memories also undergo several edits and rewrites as new information is added.

Specifically, idealization occurs when we generate positive illusions by maximizing virtues and minimizing flaws. These illusions are a combination of a partner's actual traits coupled with the belief that his or her faults are minimal. It's not that we believe the person we are attracted to is a saint, we just tend to deem their flaws (i.e. the aforementioned shoes, haircuts, and comments) as special and unique.

As long as this is carried out to a realistic degree, benefits may incur. However, those who unrealistically lionize lovers, and create qualities that their partner does not possess, may be at risk for disillusionment and disappointment. (Not surprisingly, research has shown that newlyweds reported less satisfaction when their partners turned out to be less ideal than they initially thought.)

Those of us who appropriately idealize their partners have all the facts, we just interpret them in a more positive light. It makes sense to beef up the image of those people we like, given that we want to be liked by those whom we view as desirable. A self-fulfilling prophecy may also take place when we treat our partners like they are wonderful and talented people, in that we actually help elicit this behavior from them and, in doing so, enhance their self-esteem. By believing that one's partner is the best, we may help him or her become their ideal self—an effect known as the Michelangelo phenomenon.

Who was it that said you can't have your cake and eat it too? She (or he) was totally wrong (not to mention ascetic). In fact, the qualities that we decide we want in a person are conveniently the qualities that the person we end up with has. Perhaps you once claimed that you would never settle for someone who wasn't a banker with three siblings, but now that you've found your chef with one sister, you've decided those are the qualities that are perfect for you. With appropriate levels of idealization, we reconstruct our memories to believe that the qualities we've found in a person are the ones of value to us.

Our reconstructive memories of events in the past are usually a combination of what happened then coupled with what we know now. Usually both members of a couple jointly work together in constructing vivid and extensive memories about their shared history. Remarkably, one's current feeling towards a partner significantly impacts what he or she remembers about their shared past. If a couple is on the rocks they are more likely to forget the happy times and instead focus on present acrimony. But if a couple is presently happy, they are more inclined to forget past conflicts. This reconstruction of memory may enhance a relationship when remembering more positive components of a shared past. Couples that remember recent improvement in their relationships (even if they did not occur) report greater satisfaction. Thus, idealizing and rehearsing happier memoriesmay be doubly beneficial. 

But proceed with caution, Don Quixotes of the world: Not all battles can be neatly won with the Treaty of Idealization. Falsely idealizing a partner and generating a fantasy may not eradicate problems if you're already experiencing contention. But, perhaps this phenomenon can serve as an effective ally. Maybe idealization and reconstructing our memories can enhance an existing relationship or emerging flame. And maybe when people say, “Look on the bright side," you won't be confused which side that is—you'll look at the person you're dating or attracted to and realize that maybe Sugar Ray wasn't so bad after all.



References

  • Goodfriend, W. (2004, January). Partner-esteem: Romantic partners' biased perceptions of each other's faculties and flaws. Paper presented at meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Austin, TX.
  • Miller, R. S. & Perlman, D. (2009). Intimate Relationships. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Watson, D., & Humrichouse, J. (2006). Personality development in emerging adulthood: Integrating evidence from self-ratings and spouse ratings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 546-558.

Kristine Keller, M.A. is in her final semester of the Psychology Masters program at New York University.

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