Shifting Perceptions in New Relationships

The Fitzwilliam Darcy Myth: Why Fighting is Especially Threatening for Newlyweds

Posted Nov 24, 2012

For those who are just joining in, this post is the third in a series of blogs analyzing the two levels of close relationships. The level of G represents the global level of perception (whether or not your partner views you as a good person overall, despite your flaws), and the level of s refers to a person’s array of specific behavioral traits (and quirks).

Have you ever wondered how children and their parents or two siblings can say the most awful things to each other, often without putting their relationships in real jeopardy, when newlyweds cannot do the same? The difference is that family-of-origin relationships offer a powerful form of protection against a shaky global level of perception (G)—the existence of shared genes and direct kinship that will never change, no matter what. 

In contrast, one's husband or wife doesn't start out as family but must become family over time. Thus, in the context of a newly forming bond, it is especially important for each partner to be mindful of the interaction between the two levels of relationships. 

As any new relationship develops, the particular accumulation of s characteristics can and will change G. My book describes the three phases of relationships more thoroughly. In brief, during the first phase (what I call the "cocaine-rush phase") of the relationship, we know very little about the other person, so, according to the fundamental attribution error theory, we should be making negative personality attributions for the other person's undesirable behaviors (and positive attributions for our own behaviors). But, of course, we don't do this at all. Instead, we extend the self-serving bias to the other person, folding him or her into a loving cocoon of consistently charitable attributions. 

If our handsome new partner is acting like a total jackass, we are quick to explain this away (“it’s because of all the stress he's been under”). When he treats us with kindness, our assumption is that he does so because it is in his character to be kind and sweet. So initially, on the level of G, the other is initially seen to be utterly perfect, the ultimate pinnacle of all human potential. 

The transition from the cocaine-rush phase of the relationship to the testing phase rolls away this protective mental cocoon and we begin to see our partners in a rather harsher light. As negative traits and flaws (s’s) begin to show up and are undeniably at play in each of us, G gets recalibrated in a downward fashion (in real life, there are few figures like Jane Austen's Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, who appear less attractive at first but become tremendously appealing as time passes). 

To the degree that the partner was initially granted unmerited and inaccurate personality strengths, this recalibration process can be profoundly destabilizing to the relationship. As two lovers come out from under their mutual spell and the folie a deux passes, they may even overcorrect and begin to see their partners in a more negative light than is warranted. Hugh Jackman begins to look like that guy who played the high school principal in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Such overcorrection results from a swing of the pendulum from a stance of “I thought she was perfect because I was always excited to see her” to “I guess I was wrong…she doesn't really look like Rose and she no longer makes me feel like Jack [of Titanic movie fame], so it must not be real love.”

When enough time has elapsed (i.e., after the end of the cocaine-rush phase), perceptions of G should stabilize, and partners should be able to make an informed decision about whether the flaws of the other person are flaws they can learn to flex with or whether there are any deal-breakers in the mix. (One take-home message from today’s post is that if you have been dating someone for at least 2 years, and you still do not have a totally solid and positive level of global perception of them, you may want to reconsider marrying that person).

Ideally, when there is enough data to support a positive global level of perception (G), G would be fixed at a relatively stable set point on a couple’s wedding day. Of course, G cannot really be reliably set until enough time has passed to allow for accurate evaluation of G, and this reality is not lost on either partner, no matter how love struck each may be. When couples date each other for an insufficient amount of time before getting married, G is still being worked out. 

Because G is in a state of some flux, the stakes feel much higher when the couple is in conflict. With no G setpoint, each partner is vulnerable to the interpretation that the other's criticisms demonstrate a game-changing shift towards a negative perception of them at the level of G. During the forming stages of a relationship, it is much scarier to be on the receiving end of a statement like “You always [insert any undesirable behavior]” which may communicate that too many undesirable s characteristics are about to result in a significant downgrade in G

In fact, in many cases this kind of statement will set off a primitive panic* because a shaky G is a shaky basis for continuing the relationship—after all, why would any of us continue in a relationship with someone whom we've concluded is not really a good person?  So, for those of you who are in relationships that appear to have real potential, it is especially important to be intentional in protecting your partner’s sense of your perception of them at the level of G. For more information on how to do this, consult my previous blog and stay tuned for the next one.

*The term “primitive panic,” a state which is set off when the attachment bond is perceived to be insecure, is described in Dr. Sue Johnson’s work: Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company. 

This post is dedicated in loving memory to Peggy Vaughan, my beloved mentor and friend. Your voice goes with me Peggy.