Love is not exactly blind, but it doesn’t have 20:20 vision either. A large body of research has sought to determine how illusions play into romance, and whether idealizing one’s partner is beneficial or detrimental to the long-term success of the relationship.
Research findings overwhelmingly support the hypothesis that positive illusions are rampant, not only at the beginning of a romantic relationship, but even years into it. People of both genders rate their partners as more attractive than their partners rate themselves, and also tend to embellish non-physical virtues, such as their partners kindness and intelligence. Such optimistic misperceptions are thought to enhance and stabilize long-term bonding.
This perceptual departure, although not completely disconnected from reality, may be evolutionarily advantageous: idealized love may be an “evolved commitment device” that enables romantic partners to invest heavily, and for long stretches of time, in each other and their offspring. Data from 168 newlywed couples who participated in a 13-year longitudinal study of marriage indicated that spouses that idealized one another as newlyweds were less likely to suffer declines in love as time progressed. Other research indicates that idealizing a partner, and being idealized, at the beginning of a relationship, provides a buffer against the forces that tend to diminish fulfillment, leading to more stable romances. In a different longitudinal study, people who idealized their partners highly as newlyweds experienced no decline in satisfaction after 3 years of marriage.
Even more intriguing, some scientists believe that idealizing one’s partner can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy, where illusion eventually becomes reality. That is to say, people can help to create the partners they wish they had, by exaggerating their virtues and minimizing their faults in their own minds. This research suggests that individuals may come to see themselves in a more positive light when their romantic partners idealize them and encourage them to act in ways that mirror and support the illusion. In such cases, love is not blind but prophetic.
So, even if conventional wisdom cautions lovers against being too idealistic, the empirical evidence makes a case for putting a positive spin on how we perceive our romantic partners.
It also suggests that we should seek life partners that hold us in better regard than we do ourselves.
Discovering a new and improved image or myself was never high in my list of reasons to choose a romantic partner -- but I lucked out anyway. Twelve years ago, I married somebody who never wavered in his belief in me, at a time when I wasn’t sure that I had it in me to pursue a science career. Today, I am a better scientist, and a better person, because of him.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Steve.