Jose AS Reyes/Shutterstock
Source: Jose AS Reyes/Shutterstock

Have you ever had a friend tell you about a gorgeous person they started seeing, only to meet the new partner in person and be thoroughly underwhelmed? Chalk it up to one of my favorite findings on how beauty plays out in romantic relationships: positive illusions.

Positive illusions—an inflated, unfounded optimism, particularly around one’s own circumstances and abilities—exist well beyond the romantic arena. They’re why most of us think we’re better-than-average drivers, why we gamble at casinos even when we know the odds are stacked against us, and why we’re pretty sure our kid is smarter than yours. But when this mental sleight of hand enters the realm of intimacy, it becomes downright beautiful. When we’re enamored with someone, we truly see them as being different than they really are—more physically appealing, for sure, but also more likable, more charming, more interesting, just plain better than most other people find them to be. But it’s not merely the byproduct of attraction—these illusions only fully come into play once we’ve established a relationship.

Here are five things to know about those rose-colored glasses through which you've been looking at your partner:

  1. Positive illusions can make you feel—and stay—in love. People who have strong positive illusions report higher relationship satisfaction—and why wouldn’t they? Look at the winner they snagged! And, again, it’s not just about puppy love: A 13-year longitudinal study showed that people who had strong positive illusions as newlyweds reported staying in love for longer, and more deeply, than people whose vision was clearer at the start of the relationship. And the stronger the illusion at the beginning of a relationship, the longer the relationship is likely to last. The main hitch is that if your illusions verge on grandiosity, the inevitable reality check might be hard enough to shatter your illusions. Better to keep those glasses tinted a mere rose, not scarlet.
     
  2. Positive illusions might mean you’re more committed to your partner. Researchers theorize that part of the reason we embrace positive illusions is because they carry us through inevitable periods of doubt in a relationship. It’s a way of protecting the commitment inherent in a partnership. But there’s a bit of a snag: Women tend to use positive illusions regardless of how committed they are to a relationship, while men tend to hold off on embracing them until they’re totally committed. (It’s unclear whether the gender divide applies to people in same-sex relationships, though people all over the Kinsey scale engage in positive illusions.)
     
  3. Positive illusions mean you can relax a little. You can quit sucking in your gut. Positive illusions give all of us a built-in safety net: If your partner thinks you’re better-looking than you actually are, you’ll have to actively become more unattractive before the illusion begins to crumble. For straight people, there’s also the added dimension of misunderstanding what the opposite sex generally finds appealing—women tend to think men prefer women to be thinner and bustier than men actually do, and men seem to believe that women swoon for a form more muscular than most women actually want. This disconnect doesn’t go away for people in committed relationships. Between this miscalculation and positive illusions, your imperfect form may be exactly what the love doctor ordered. Trust your beloved when he or she says you’re beautiful: Chances are, they mean it.
     
  4. Positive illusions don’t ever really go away. People tend to report their current partner as being better-looking than their former partners—but they still inflate their former sweetheart’s attractiveness too. And unsurprisingly, your rose-colored glasses stay firmly affixed when reflecting on that hot fling you had way back when because we tend to connect the beauty of our former lovers with the amount of passion a relationship had.
     
  5. ... unless you were dumped. People who assigned blame for the end of a relationship to themselves, or to mutual agreement, continued to rate exes as improbably attractive. But people who were unceremoniously dumped hold a bit of a grudge by mentally diminishing the heat of their former flame. So while you’re still fondly reminiscing about your college boyfriend’s dreamy eyes—what a pity you had to let him go!—know that in his mind, you’re not looking so good.

About the Author

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is the author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women's Lives (Simon & Schuster, 2016). 

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