These days, it is often expected for couples to idealize each other. People may believe that their partner’s overly optimistic views of them will help to build their confidence or will shape them into a better person. Or, they may believe that these views are indicative of a healthy relationship. While past studies have indeed found that idealization may lead to positive relationship outcomes, many of these studies have been riddled with methodological issues. Of note, research has often failed to differentiate between idealization (seeing a partner more positively than they see themselves) and derogation (seeing a partner more negatively than they see themselves). Negative behaviors like derogation may be more consequential. Indeed, Gottman et al. (1995) found that in marriages, five positive behaviors were needed to make up for one negative behavior. My colleagues and I (Wu et al., 2020) thus set forth to investigate the roles of idealization and derogation in a relationship through two studies .
In the first study, 105 Asian American couples rated themselves and their partners on an array of attribute types: communal (e.g., kind), cerebral (e.g., intelligent), vibrancy (e.g., witty), attractiveness (e.g., physically attractive), and status (e.g., high status). They also completed relationship measures. Results indicated that when derogation was taken into consideration, idealization had little importance. Idealizing a partner showed few positive associations with relationship quality. The exceptions were that idealizing a partner’s communal and attractiveness attributes was related to greater dating stability. Idealizing a partner’s status was actually negatively associated with intimacy. Meanwhile, derogating a partner consistently predicted negative outcomes for all attribute types. Curiously, being the object of idealization or derogation by a partner generally did not matter – perhaps people were unaware of their partner’s true views of them.
In the second study, 98 Chinese couples in Beijing rated themselves and their partners on the same attribute types and completed relationship measures. Results showed that idealizing a partner was related to positive relationship outcomes only for attractiveness . Meanwhile, derogating a partner was again associated with lower relationship quality. Again, being the object of idealization or derogation was generally of little consequence.
In summary, results indicate that overly negative views of one’s partner are more powerful than overly positive views of one’s partner. While derogation was consistently related to negative outcomes for various attribute types, only idealizing a partner on attractiveness consistently predicted better relationship outcomes. In other words, derogation is the red flag. Results coincide with a study of Western couples (Seidman, 2012) that used the same analytical method.
We conclude that despite popular beliefs that one should idealize their partner, “…there may be no need for a pedestal, except when it comes to beauty." So go ahead and think that your partner is the most beautiful person in the world for the sake of your relationship, but there is no need to think that they are the smartest, the kindest, or the most powerful.
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Wu, K., Chen, C., Greenberger, E., Wang, Y., Xiu, D., Liu, B., ... & Dong, Q. (2020). No need for pedestals: Idealization does not predict better relationships among Asians. Personal Relationships, 27, 336-365. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12317
Gottman, J., Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1995). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last.
New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Seidman, G. (2012). Positive and negative: Partner derogation and enhancement differentially related to relationship satisfaction. Personal Relationships, 19, 51–71. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01337