There was a memorable moment in the 2012 presidential race when Ann Romney objected to the public’s perception of her candidate husband, Mitt. “I keep trying to tell people that he’s very funny,” she explained to CBS News. “Maybe I’ll get the message through finally. It’s so interesting to me that he’s misperceived…[H]e’s always entertaining and he’s always fun to be around, so I think that if people know that about him they’ll be better informed.”
It was clear that Romney viewed her husband differently than the viewing public. I believe I understand her experience. I think the same thing about my husband. To me, he’s hilarious, while others see him as logical and serious.
What accounts for this difference in perception? One explanation is that people like Ann, and me, are not accepting reality. Maybe we’re just trying to convince ourselves, or others, of something about our partners that isn't really there. Another possibility is that we’re correct—we each married the most amazing and entertaining man. A third option seems most likely, however—that Ann Romney and I are maintaining positive illusions, something most happy couples do whether they realize it or not.
Does Illusion Boost Commitment?
Researchers at the University of North Carolina asked dating and married couples to fill out questionnaires about their relationships. Some couples reported on their perception of their own relationships, while others reported on perceptions of the “average” relationship or their closest friend’s relationship. Participants rated things like the relationship’s quality, and their optimism about its future. The results showed that people tend to believe their own relationship is better than others’, and this positive illusion was associated with higher levels of commitment. The more committed we are to our sweetheart, the better we think our relationship is, relative to others.
With high commitment, not only do we develop an idealized view of the relationship, we also develop an idealized view of our partner. When he is picky or particular, you might remind yourself he has high standards. When she is cranky or short with you, you might blame her workload. The reality is, you have to do this. If you interpreted all of your partner’s actions in a negative light, it’s unlikely you’d want to stay in the relationship.
Positive illusions allow you to maximize your partner’s virtues and minimize his or her faults. Researchers from the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada, had nearly 200 couples complete questionnaires regarding their perception of themselves and their partners on a variety of positive qualities, like being kind and self-assured—and on a variety of faults, like being thoughtless and controlling. For the most part, people saw their partners in the same way the partners saw themselves. But there was one exception: In self-described highly satisfying relationships, people saw their partners as even better than the partners saw themselves.
The happiest relationships, then, are those in which the partners see the best in each other.
While positive illusions are associated with happiness and commitment, the early phase of dating may not be the best time to break out the rose-colored glasses. Certainly, it’s good to try to see the best in people. If you don’t, your relationships will never have a chance to bloom. But idealizing a new partner while ignoring critical information about attributes that aren’t likely to sit well with you long-term may not be in your best interest.
Prior to a commitment, it’s important to be realistic about whether or not you can accept the other’s imperfections. But when you decide to commit, you may find yourself seeing your partner in the same way the happiest couples do—even if it’s just a happy illusion.
Martz, J. M., Verette, J., Arriaga, X. B., Slovik, L. F., Cox, C. L., & Rusbult, C. E. (1998). Positive illusion in close relationships. Personal Relationships, 5, 159–181.
Murray, S., Holmes, J., & Griffin, D. (1996). The benefits of positive illusions: Idealization and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 70, 79-98.