Does Your Relationship Need a Reality Check?

Putting someone a pedestal might feel right, but research says there's a cost.

Posted Jun 21, 2015

“I hate it when my boyfriend tells me I’m the most beautiful woman in the world.”

“My parents told me I was so brilliant that I could do anything I wanted. They ruined my life.”

Source: conrado/Shutterstock

Most of us want to be admired and, occasionally, even slightly idealized by our loved ones. At a certain point, however, such good feelings can become harmful. Too much admiration can actually damage a relationship.

What’s the tipping point, and what can you do to avoid it?

An article in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships describes what happens when one member of a couple over-idealizes the other. In a series of three studies of married and dating couples, Jennifer M. Tomlinson, a psychologist at Colgate University, and her colleagues Arthur Aron, Cheryl L. Carmichael, Harry T. Reis, and John G. Holmes investigated "perceived over-idealization" in couples. Specifically, they were curious about what happens when your partner’s positive evaluation of you exceeds your own perception of yourself. They also wanted to find out what is the optimal amount of idealization in a relationship. What amount of admiration makes a partnership work?

Tomlinson et al. recognized that because we know it is important to express positive feelings about people we love, couples often try to praise one another. While we want to know that we are admired by our partner, too much admiration can be a problem. Why is this? And what can you do about it in your own relationship?

The studies

The authors conducted three studies of perceived idealization—that is, of one partner’s sense of a discrepancy between their own self-perception and the other person’s perception of them.

One study was conducted in a laboratory with couples who were dating. Couples in this study were all between 17 and 36 years old. In the experiment, a couple would be asked to answer questions on a form. They were seated at a long table with a partition, so that they could see one another, but not what they were writing. One partner’s questionnaire said, "Please list all of the qualities of your partner that are extremely valuable and positive. You should not list any more than one such quality if that was all that easily came to mind." Although they thought they each had the same questions, the other partner was asked to list as many of the items in their dorm room, bedroom, or apartment as possible—a minimum of 30. The partner with the list of items in their room generally took longer to complete the questionnaire than did the partner listing valuable and positive qualities. (In a control group, both partners were given the same questionnaire and finished at the same time.)

Tomlinson and her colleagues found that within those couples in which one partner thought the other was writing a much longer list of qualities they admired and valued, the partners actually physically distanced themselves from one another after the experiment. While there could be other explanations for this behavior, it was consistent through the experimental group—and did not appear in the control group. The authors believe that the need for physical distance was related to a sense that one partner was over-idealizing the other.

The second study was based on a survey of married couples. Both members of the couple filled out the same questionnaire. Based on the responses, the authors concluded that while idealization was not as significant an issue in the married couples as it was in those who were dating, there was still some negative reaction to perceived over-idealization within these couples.

A third study surveyed women in dating relationships. Questionnaires filled out by these women gathered data about self-perception, perceived idealization, and relationship satisfaction. The study found that relationship satisfaction increased with perceived idealization of abilities, up to a point, but that it leveled off and then sharply decreased when a woman felt that her partner’s perception of her was much more positive than her own feelings about herself.

What is this about? Why do we want our partners to admire us a little bit more than we admire ourselves, but not a lot more? And what can you do when the balance is off in your own relationship?

The authors hypothesize that too much praise can be taken to mean a lack of awareness or acceptance of our strengths and weaknesses. We want to know that those closest to us really know and love us for who we are—warts and all. Unrealistic expectations can also lead to difficulties in managing life activities and sharing life tasks. If you are the over-idealized partner, you may worry that you will not live up to your loved one’s expectations, or that too much is going to be expected of you. You may be afraid of disappointing the person who admires you so much.

The over-idealized partner may also worry about not being understood, valued, or accepted for who he or she is. Interestingly, over-idealization can also make us feel weak or vulnerable, because we know that we are not as powerful, smart or beautiful as our partner believes that we are.  

Although this study is about couples, it can probably also be taken into other relationships, such as those between parents and children, or work relationships.

I would love to hear about your own experiences with either over-idealizing or being over-idealized.

If you’d like to read more about the study:

The costs of being put on a pedestal: Effects of feeling over-idealized (2013). Jennifer M. Tomlinson, Arthur Aron, Cheryl L. Carmichael, Harry T. Reis, and John G. Holmes. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, pp.1–26

If you’d like to read some of my other posts on this topic:

If you’d like to read about the damaging results of over-idealization:

The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels

Copyright @ FD Barth 2015

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