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Test Your Relationship IQ: Question #1 (Answers Edition) - The Power of Positive Illusions

Last week as part of our "Test Your Relationship IQ" series, we asked readers:

The Question: Holding an inflated view of your partner leads to disappointment and is bad for your relationship.

The Breakdown:  27% of readers answered True, 63% answered False

The Answer:  If you're dying to know, the answer is at the end. Otherwise a bit of explanation first...

The Explanation: This question taps the idea of positive illusions, or overly positive and contrived views of the partner (sorta like looking at your partner through rose-colored glasses).1 Importantly, these illusions result more from favorable interpretations of the partner (sort of a “glass is half full” approach) rather than abject delusions (e.g., “I know my partner hasn’t had a job in months but I’m sure he is going to become an internet millionaire with a new and improved Facebook…you’ll see”). When you hold positive illusions, you see your partner as more positive than others see him or her (e.g., You: “my partner is super funny and really hot”, Others: “your partner is kinda lame and a bit homely”). When you hold positive illusions, your view of your partner is also more positive than your partner’s own view of her- or himself (e.g., You: “my partner is tremendously smart, a regular Jeopardy champion”; Your Partner: “I happen to know a few obscure facts”). 

Because positive illusions are inaccurate, you are essentially deceiving yourself because you are distorting your partner’s true qualities. It is easy to imagine how this strategy could possibly crash and burn. I mean, can you really keep this up forever? At some point you are going to see the light and realize that your partner isn’t as great as you thought. However, the funny thing is that as long as your illusions aren’t too extravagantly positive (e.g., “my partner is the greatest, most perfect, partner who has ever walked the Earth”), you really can keep up the illusion forever. In fact, holding positive illusions doesn’t necessarily mean you’re blind to your partner’s faults. Rather, it’s just that you don’t see these issues as critically important or meaningful.2

Even if you can maintain your illusions forever, don’t the illusions mean that you are living a lie? Perhaps, but what if your partner starts to believe in the illusion? In the famous book How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie suggests that you should “give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.” The same philosophy could work for your partner as well. Research supports this idea and shows that partners start to live up to the positive illusions and expectations others have for them.3 Even when there are problems, relationships with more positive illusions are more likely to endure and be more satisfying. This process also benefits your self-esteem because you are now in a relationship with a better partner.4    

So it seems that you should feel free to make your Clark Kent(esque) partner into a bit of a Superman, or your Diana Prince(esque) partner into a bit of a Wonder Woman. As long as you keep your illusions reasonable, your partner will start to resemble those illusions, your relationship quality will be higher, and you will benefit from having the partner of your dreams/illusions.

The Question: Holding an inflated view of your partner leads to disappointment and is bad for your relationship.

The Answer:  False.     

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1Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (1996). The benefits of positive illusions: Idealization and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 79-98.

2Murray, S. L., & Holmes, J. G. (1999). The (mental) ties that bind: Cognitive structures that predict relationship resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1228-1244.

3Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (1996). The self-fulfilling nature of positive illusions in romantic relationships: Love is not blind, but prescient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(6), 1155-1180.

4Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (2000). Self-esteem and the quest for felt security: How perceived regard regulates attachment processes. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 78(3), 478-498.

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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Reader Comments (1)

Would you say that if we choose to focus more on the positives of a person, instead of inflating our opinions about them, it would be a better way of ensuring we develop an enduring relationship? Be aware of their negatives but help them work on them and at the same time, truly believe that their positives are more important than their negatives?

November 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterShikha Patnaik
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