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Idealizing your partner: Relationship poison or protection?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | March 14, 2012

Nobody’s perfect, so they say, and conventional wisdom would hold that entering marriage starry-eyed and blind to your partner’s weaknesses only foreshadows future disappointment and relationship trouble. Some research even supports this idea: a 13-year longitudinal study by Tom Huston at the University of Texas Austin (Huston et al., 2001) found that couples with steady, longer courtship periods and awareness of each others’ strengths and weaknesses were more likely to remain happily married over the long term. By contrast, couples with “Hollwyood Romances” — bursting, passionate courtships that quickly result in marriage — quickly grew dissatisfied as spouses, and predictably, were more likely to divorce within seven years.

But now, a newly published longitudinal study in the journal Psychological Science (Murray, Griffin, Derrick, Harris, Aloni, and Leder, 2011) complicates the picture. This new study tracked the marriage satisfaction of 193 newlywed couples over the course of three years. The researchers were particularly interested in the role of partner idealization on subsequent marriage satisfaction —that is, how much each partner in the relationship idealized the other as “the perfect partner” and whether this was destructive for the relationship.

The researchers’ method for measuring idealization is worth describing. For each of twenty personal qualities, each participant provided three ratings. They not only rated their own partner, but in addition, provided ratings both for their “ideal partner” and for themselves. The researchers were then able to compare each newlywed’s own ratings AND their partner’s ratings against the partner’s ratings of the “ideal partner.” The researchers first calculated the correlation between a person’s own ratings and their partner’s ideal mate — this real-ideal correlation gives us an idea of how closely a newlywed actually matches their partner’s ideal prototype. Next, the researchers calculated the correlation between a person’s ratings of their mate and ther own ideal prototype — this perceived-ideal correlation gives us an idea of how closely a given person’s perception of their partner matches their “ideal” protoype. The difference between these two correlations — how much my partner actually differs from my ideal versus how much I THINK my partner differs from my ideal — indexes the degree of bias, or idealization, I am engaging in. In other words, it is a measure of idealization that takes into account how much my partner is, in fact, like my ideal.

The results, at first blush, contradict earlier findings from the UT Austin study — the researchers found that partner idealization actually protected the newlywed couples from the steep declines in relationship dissatisfaction that normally characterize the early years of marriage. In fact, over the course of three years, the partners who idealized their partners the most did not experience a significant decline in marital satisfaction. These are pretty astounding results, because as courtship gives way to the less exciting tasks of day-to-day relationship maintenance, the giddiness of early love is hard to keep up.

So, how do we reconcile these two literatures? Is it a bad idea to go into marriage starry-eyed, or is it not?

As it turns out, the answer lies in the way that the newlyweds in the study idealized their partners. Through clever data analyses, the researchers were able to conclude that the protective effect of partner idealization comes NOT from simply seeing one’s partner more positively — that is, being blind to the negative qualities of one’s spouse. Rather, the idealization process consists of bringing your image of the ideal partner closer to how you see your spouse, with warts and all. This is a critical difference. Rather than saying, “she’s perfect”, protective idealization is more accurately described as people saying “she’s not perfect, but she’s perfect for me.” In other words, idealization that can reconcile a partner’s imperfections seems to have protective effects for long-term relationships.

Believing that your partner is not necessarily perfect, only perfect for you, seems to help relationships for several reasons. Most importantly, it prevents us from seeing our partners in unrealistically positive terms, and may set the stage for forgiveness or compassion in the face of a partner’s less endearing qualites. Idealization may also lead to a greater willingness to support one’s partner (see this related post on support-giving) and to be less critical of them — factors that have been shown in other research to promote relationship health. Finally, partner idealization may help people feel that they did achieve a bit of the heaven so many of us seek– that is, to find one’s soul mate, even if that soul does not necessarily have a golden aura about them.

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Cross-posted from Psychology Today.