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And For My Next Trick: The Magical Effects of Positive Illusions About Romantic Partners

Think about the last time you had a crush. What did it feel like? Chances are this experience involved overwhelming feelings of passion, confusion and excitement. Relationship researchers often refer to this experience as passionate love,1 or “Eros.”2 When someone is in this state of crush, thoughts about their partner (or desired partner) dominate their mind. Further, a person often thinks about their crush in highly idealized ways; their partner is the most beautiful, intelligent, and compassionate person in the world, and there is simply no way you can convince the crush-er otherwise.

Although common when someone is crushing, these idealizations—called positive illusions3—can occur at any relationship stage. This brings up an important question: are positive illusions good for relationships, or are you better off having a more realistic assessment of your partner? Your intuition might suggest the latter—that it’s best if you don’t put your partner on a pedestal. After all, your partner is only human and bound to disappoint your ideals at some point, right? Research suggests otherwise.

Sandra Murray and her colleagues found that people who idealized their romantic partners more (and were idealized more by their partners) experienced the most satisfaction with their relationships and were happier in them compared to people who idealized their partners less or were idealized by their partners less.3 Other perks of positive illusions included higher levels of love for and trust in a partner and less fighting in the relationship.4 Further still, married couples who initially had strong positive illusions about each other experienced no decline in marital satisfaction over a period of 3 years.5 If you’re still not convinced of the power of these illusions, consider what I believe to be the most mind-blowing benefit of these idealizations: when relationship partners idealized each other more, over time the individuals in the relationship actually changed to become more like their partner’s ideal.6 In other words, if you think long enough about your partner as fulfilling your ideals of what a romantic partner should be, sooner or later it may no longer be much of an illusion; they may actually be more like your ideal partner.

It’s worth mentioning that there are circumstances where positive illusions don’t help—and can even hurt—your relationship. If there are serious problems with your relationship already, for example, then thinking that your partner will live up to your ideal standards may only hasten the demise of your relationship.7 For instance, if there are serious trust issues between you and your partner, or one of you has troubling money management habits, you’re probably better off opting out of idealization, and going with a more realistic evaluation of your partner. If, however, you find yourself swept up in a crush, or are already in a good relationship where you idealize your partner, continue to dream big; the magic may eventually persist even after the illusion is gone.

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1Hatfield, E., & Sprecher, S. (1986). Measuring passionate love in intimate relationships. Journal of Adolescence, 9, 383-410.

2Hendrick, C., & Hendrick, S. (1986). A theory and method of love. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 392-402.

3Murray, 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, 79-98.

4Murray, S. L., & Holmes, J. G. (1997). A leap of faith? Positive illusions in romantic relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 586-604.

5Murray, S. L., Griffin, D. W., Derrick, J. L., Harris, B., Aloni, M., & Leder, S. (2011). Tempting fate or inviting happiness? Unrealistic idealization prevents the decline of marital happiness. Psychological Science, 22, 619-626.

6Murray, 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, 1155-1180.

7McNulty, J. K., O’Mara, E. M., & Karney, B. R. (2008). Benevolent cognitions as a strategy of relationship maintenance: “Don’t sweat the small stuff”… but it is not all small stuff. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 631-646. 

John Sakaluk - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV

John is interested in experimental existential psychology, sexual health, cultural scripts, double standards, and other sexual attitudes. He relies on theories such as attachment, terror management, and conceptual metaphor, while researching topics such as condom use and sexual strategies.

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