When it comes to romance, losing touch with reality can be a good thing. A study by Sauder Professor Dale Griffin finds that unrealistically idealizing your romantic partner is actually beneficial.
The study, published in Psychological Science, found that seeing your spouse as your ideal partner – more ideal than they really are, that is – is the ticket to a happy marriage. Typically, marital satisfaction declines in the first few years of marriage, but Griffin and his co-authors found that seeing a flawed lover as the perfect mate is a buffer against the corrosive effects of time, as the most idealistic newlyweds experienced no such decline in satisfaction.
In a Q&A, Griffin, the Advisory Council Chair in Consumer Behaviour at Sauder, explains his research and suggests what newlyweds can do to keep the Valentine’s spirit flourishing every day of the year.
Why would a business psychologist be involved in research on romantic relationships?
It comes from my interest in risk and decision making; there’s a lot of risk and potential reward in affairs of business and of love. For many decisions, being optimistic and ignoring the risk is the worst thing you can do. But we were interested in also looking at domains—like personal relationships—where being optimistic and slightly unrealistic about the risk might actually be a good thing.
Why would it be beneficial to have an unrealistic view of your spouse?
Seeing your partner in an unrealistically positive light is predictive of more forgiveness and less suspicion when difficulties come up, and a general tendency to look for the best explanation of your partner’s behaviour.
Does this really just say that optimists have better relationships?
No, it’s more than that. Although there is a correlation between general self-esteem, optimism and the tendency to idealize a partner, the link between idealization and longer, happier relationships holds true for highly optimistic and less optimistic people, as well as for both men and women.
After getting married, people seem to make less effort to impress one another. Do your findings suggest married people should keep trying to appear better than they really are?
Sort of, but it’s not just about faking it. Actually behaving positively is also associated with happy relationships. So really, you should do your part in two ways – always be your best self with your partner, and try to see the best in them – even when it may not be there!