The Young and the Restless

Exploring the psychology of 20-something relationships

The Frog Becomes Your Prince: The Magic of Idealization

Making your significant other better than the rest

It's easy to recognize when you've got it bad--saucer eyes and drunken smiles, unwarranted dollars thrown in tip-jars, go-with-the-flow attitudes and Lloyd Dobler infused street dances-are typical tells. Most of all though, you know you've got it bad when you ignore bogus shoes, botched haircuts, or bizarre-o comments that escape from your new lover's lips. You hide said comments in a locked box in the back of your mind far away from the grasps of your judgmental friends. (i.e. "I didn't leave my room for a week when Sugar Ray broke up.") But, the qualities others deem as setbacks, you may just call unique and quirky. The phenomenon of idealization facilitates this process.

While our hearts are busy submerged in the glory of attraction, the phenomenon of idealization may insidiously creep into our cerebral systems. Little do we know, 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 the partner we've found. We are all prone to the powers of idealization. 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 questionable expiration date bread. We are especially prone to idealizing moments of the past, like my one friend who claimed "last year around this time I was juggling like three boyfriends." Really though? Cause I could have sworn this is the same time last year when you didn't leave your couch so you could finish season one of the Vampire Diaries. It may be easy to reconstruct our memories in order to adjust to our current situation and sometimes these reconstructive memories can even help us in ways we didn't realize.

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Research has shown that most of us desire a partner who is among other qualities, attractive, trustworthy, warm, successful, and intelligent. However, despite what popular culture and every Katherine Heigl movie relentlessly suggest, it's often difficult to find a partner who fits the bill for all of these characteristics. Luckily for us, our memories and the powers of idealization can help us think we've found the person who has all of these qualities. Just like Katherine's movies are edited to ensure that the heroine's frog turns into a prince, our memories also undergo several edits and re-writes as new information is added. Idealization occurs when we generate positive illusions by maximizing virtues and minimizing flaws. These illusions are a combination of the person's actual traits coupled with the belief that one's 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, 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 inevitable disappointment. Save for Nora Ephron et al., you can't dream up a mythical creature who punctuates sentences with rainbows and butterflies. Not surprisingly, research has shown that newlyweds reported less satisfaction when their partners turned out to be less ideal than they initially thought. Thus, those who appropriately idealize their partners have all the facts, they just interpret them in a more positive light. It makes sense to beef up the image of those whom we like given that we want to be liked by those who are viewed 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 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 Michaelengelo phenomenon.

And who was it that said you can't have your cake and eat it too? That lady, we'll call her lady, was totally wrong (and totally 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 and had 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 for 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 their partner significantly impacts what he or she remembers about his or her shared past. If a couple is on the rocks they are more likely to forget the happy times and instead focus on the present acrimony. But, if a couple is presently happy, they are more inclined to forget past knockdowns and arguments. 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 it did not occur) report greater satisfaction. Thus, idealizing and rehearsing happier memories may be doubly beneficial. 

However, proceed with caution Don Quijotes 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. Remember, no one wants to be that person who thinks their significant other "lost their phone" when he or she was just fist pumping with it while simultaneously getting someone's digits and checking into foursquare. 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 Mark McGrath ain't so bad after all.

Tell me dear readers, what do you usually find yourself idealizing: friendships, jobs, relationships? When does it stop being a helpful mechanism and become harmful?

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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