How do Spouses Want to be Seen by their Partners?

Do spouses want to be known for who they are, or idealized by their partners?

Posted Nov 10, 2012

For more than a decade, several marital researchers engaged in a lengthy debate that boils down to two opposing viewpoints. One camp insisted that happily married spouses want to be known and loved as the people they are, with their warts and all. The other camp insisted that happily married spouses want to be idealized somewhat in their partners’ eyes, even perhaps to be thought to be a little better than they really are. 

When I was in graduate school, my colleague, Dr. Lisa Neff, and our mentor, Dr. Benjamin Karney, published some research that suggests that the entire raging debate was grounded in a false dichotomy.

Neff and Karney observed that every marriage exists on two levels, the level of global perception (G) and the level of specific perception (s). The global level of perception (G) refers to an over-arching appraisal of a person (i.e. whether or not someone is perceived to be a valuable employee or a good spouse). The specific level of perception (s) refers to appraisal of specific behavioral patterns (i.e. whether someone is generally tardy or on time, whether someone is generally well-organized or disorganized, whether someone is a "morning person" or a grouch upon waking). 

In breaking a relationship down to these two levels, Neff and Karney were able to make sense of the research findings in both camps. That is, both camps were right: people want both—we want to be accurately known by our partners at the level of specific behaviors, but we also want to be slightly idealized at the level of global perceptions.* In other words, we want our partners to be privately aware of our little flaws and personal struggles, and, at the same time, we want to be thought of as a good person and a highly desirable mate. 

Actually, in a curious way, this parallels the self-worth perceptions of healthy individuals. That is, people with healthy self-esteem perceive themselves to have a balance of specific strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately believe that, overall, they are good and worthy human beings. Narcissistic individuals and depressed individuals struggle with myopia (in other words, a kind of short-sightedness or blindness) of self-perception. The narcissist is blinded to her own weaknesses and believes herself to be better than everyone else at most everything. The depressed person, on the other end of the spectrum, is blind to his strengths and sees himself as less capable and worthwhile than most people in most areas. So, both within ourselves, and in our relationships with others, accurate perception of specific character qualities paired with a generally positive global perception is most beneficial and healthy. 

The concept of a marriage existing on two levels stimulates several insights related to the development and maintenance of successful close relationships. In reference to Neff and Karney's suggestion that close relationships occur on two levels, the next 2-3 blog posts will develop these applications further. These applications will include areas such as how to build trust and security in a developing relationship and how to protect a relationship during times of conflict. 

*Neff, L. and Karney, B. (2005). “To Know You is to Love You: The Implications of Global Adoration and Specific Accuracy for Marital Relationships.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 480-497. 

Neff, L. and Karney, B. (2002). “Judgments of a Relationship Partner: Specific Accuracy but Global Enhancement.” Journal of Personality, 70, 1079-1112.