Sandra Murray, professor at State University of New York in Buffalo, researched the strength of illusion in romantic couples.
Her inventory asked both married and dating couples to rate themselves, their actual partner, and an imaginary partner on both strengths and faults. Then Murray asked friends to provide ratings on the strengths of each member of that couple.
The findings revealed a discrepancy between what was perceived by the more objective friends and that of the romantic partner. The partner was far more likely to define their characteristics as highly positive. The larger the discrepancy found, the bigger the illusion.
Here are some examples:
- What a friend might refer to as superficial chitchat, the romantic partner framed as a love of people and self-confidence to relate to others.
- What a friend might refer to as a rigid stubbornness, the romantic partner framed as courage to take a stand.
- What a friend sees as being distracted and scattered, was framed by the romantic partner as being natural, unpretentious, authentic and expansive.
- What a friend referred to as insecurity and a lack of self-confidence, the romantic partner framed as openness.
- What a friend referred to as obsessive jealousy, the romantic partner framed as protecting their love and devotion from intruders.
Murray found that being out of touch with reality actually enhanced the subjective assessment of the couple’s happiness and predicted its chances of long-term stability. These happily satisfied couples perceived greatness in their partners that their friends did not see. In sharp contrast, unhappy couples perceptions were distorted in the other direction. They saw character flaws and weaknesses that their friends did not report.
Happier couples have an optimistic orientation expecting that their partner’s strengths will offer them protection from adverse life events when they occur. Murray finds that the belief that these couples have in each other has a strong beneficial effect. Each partner is making a supreme effort to live up to the expectations that the other has for them and actually grows into the idealized image that their partner holds. Consequently, both partners are motivated to strive toward their ideal self, which is the best that they can be. Over time, their strengths are realized and become active on a consistent basis.
Working together to live up to the idealized image of who we may become is a vitalizing endeavor. It’s a good contract to bring out the best in each other. Not wanting to let down our partner’s faith in us propels us to work harder at developing our unique gifts. It’s an agreement where both partners win by growing into who they can become.
If there is some distortion and illusion along the way, so be it. It’s part of the process and erring on the side of enhancing their wonderfulness really serves them along the way.
So don’t be too quick to become realistic. Hang on to your positive illusions. They are illuminating the way forward.