The Process of Idealization
The powerful phenomenon that convinces us that our partners are the best.
Posted Dec 08, 2011
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—"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. Qualities others see as flaws or red flags you find 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 memories, may increase our overall happiness with a new partner.
We're all prone to 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 two-week-old turkey on bread that had long outlasted its 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.
It can be easy to reconstruct memories in order to adjust to our current situation—and sometimes these revised memories even help us in ways we don’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 have us believe, 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 each of these qualities, even if our friends occasionally remind us that we haven’t. 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 cuts and rewrites as new information is processed.
Specifically, idealization occurs when we generate positive illusions by maximizing virtues and minimizing flaws. These illusions grow from our tendency to overlay our partners’ actual traits with the (misguided) belief that his or her faults are minimal. It's not that we believe the person we are attracted to is a saint; we’re just inclined to deem their flaws (i.e. the aforementioned shoes, haircuts, and comments) special and unique.
And as long as this idealization is carried out to a realistically sustainable degree, the benefits of this process often outweigh the costs. However, those who unrealistically lionize lovers by creating qualities that their partners do not possess may be at risk for disillusionment—and disappointment. (Not surprisingly, research has shown that newlyweds report waning satisfaction when their partners turn out to be less ideal than they initially thought.)
On the other hand, those of us who “appropriately” idealize our partners have all the facts; we just choose to interpret them in a more positive light. It makes sense to beef up the image of the people we like, given that we in turn hope to be liked by those whom we view as desirable. In fact, a self-fulfilling prophecy may arise when we treat our partners as wonderful and talented people, only to elicit related behavior from them and, in so doing, enhance their self-esteem. By believing that our partners are the best versions of themselves, we may help them become those ideal selves—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 we decide we want in a person are often, conveniently, the qualities 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 (like yourself), but now that you've found your only-child chef, you're convinced he was perfect for you all along. With “appropriate” levels of idealization, we reconstruct our memories to believe that the qualities we've found in another person are the ones we value ourselves.
Our revisionist memories usually take shape when the “what we know now” begins to imprint upon the “what happened then.” Both members of a couple are often responsible for interdependently constructing vivid and extensive memories of their shared history. And remarkably, one's current feelings toward a partner significantly impacts how he or she is able to recall that shared past. If a couple is on the rocks, they’re more likely to displace the happy memories with fresh thoughts of acrimony. But if presently content, they’re more inclined to forget past conflicts. This reconstruction of memory may enhance a relationship when recollecting more positive moments from a shared past. Couples that recall recent improvement in their relationships (even if such change did not actually occur) report greater satisfaction. Thus, idealizing and rehearsing happier memories may 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 an untenable fantasy will likely fail to eradicate hardship if you're already in the trenches. But that still leaves one way in which this phenomenon can serve as an effective ally: Idealization and reconstructing memories can enhance a healthy relationship or even kindle a new flame. So maybe the next time you hear, “Look on the bright side," you won't be confused as to which side that is—you'll just glance over at the guy with the bowl-cut hair and realize, Hey, maybe Sugar Ray wasn't so bad after all.
- 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.