Positive Illusions: Brad Pitt or Danny DeVito?

Imagine a colleague of yours, Mary, comes to the office one day and starts talking about this guy John whom she met in a bar. Supposedly, this guy is not only handsome, but also super smart, extremely witty, and God knows what else. So, obviously, you cannot wait to see this stud. When you – finally - meet this Brad Pitt look-alike, Brad Pitt seems to have been turned into Danny DeVito: all you get to see is this balding dwarf! What makes matters worse; he is so boring that after 5 minutes of talking to him you have to seize any excuse you can to run away from him. So, the next time you meet Mary and ask about John, wondering perhaps whether she meant a different John, you still hear this same perfect description. If you ever were in a situation like that you know that it can be quite confusing, you might ask yourself: what on earth’s name is Mary (insert the name of your own friend here) thinking?! Can’t she see the blatant truth about this guy?

However, when you think about this case a little bit longer, the concept of ‘objective’ truth in close relationships is quite tricky. The reason for that is partly because when being in such a relationship we are of course confronted not only with our own feelings, thoughts and impressions, but also with our partners’. Because we partly depend on our partners, whom we love and trust, we benefit from the intimacy and the affection. On the other hand, we also face the threat of possible pain in case of betrayal by a partner. Hence, we might find ourselves trapped between two opposing forces: on the one hand the desire for greater intimacy, which means getting closer to our partner, or, on the other hand, the desire for greater autonomy, distancing ourselves from our partner. So, how can we then know that our partner won’t betray us? To some extent we have to just trust them. Hence, in order to function smoothly as couple and to feel more secure, we might develop certain ideas about the internal states of our partners: their thoughts, and feelings; and that make us feel that we know each other better. However, as many of us know, knowing oneself is already challenging, and knowing the other, however close he or she may be to us, seems even harder. In this article I will first discuss the functionality of an (unrealistic) image about a significant other, and then specify on what level these images should be addressed.

There has been a substantial amount of research devoted to investigating such opinions. For one thing, as one can expect, it seems beneficial to be positive about a partner. What might be surprising about this, is the fact that even unrealistic positive evaluations of a partner seem to be beneficial. These kinds of often overly optimistic impressions, which do not always match reality, are often referred to as positive illusions. Research conducted by Murray, Holmes, and Griffin (1996) provides some evidence for why such illusions might be beneficial. The authors analyzed the evaluations that married partners made of one another and found that positive illusions acted as a kind of buffer to negative events in a relationship. In other words, if one thinks of his or her partner in such positive terms, then one is more likely to enjoy being with this person, also when the ‘going gets tough’. Even more interestingly, the authors found that over a course of a year, individuals even began to share their partners’ idealized images of them. In other words, there is a chance that if Mary continues to see John as a witty and smart guy, he might start believing it more as well. As a result he might in fact even become more like that. That is why Murray and colleagues (1996) conclude that “love is more prescient than blind”, because the individuals seem to create the reality that they wish for, as the relationship progresses.

Unfortunately, there is a catch to this ‘method’: one’s positive illusions should be constructed in such a way that our partner’s flaws can be accounted for, so that our positive opinions will not easily be destroyed by a partner’s shortcomings. For instance, imagine John and Mary who remain in a relationship and even decide to move in together. At first, every time you visit Mary, you still hear the same idealized stories about John. However, as time progresses you find that Mary becomes more and more skeptical: she starts to complain about the fact that John never cooks for her, while you notice that she sounds increasingly bitter and disappointed. It seems that she suddenly starts to discover John’s flaws, and that this damages her idealization of him. In such a case, it would then seem that the idealization was not strong enough to protect Mary against disappointment, which actually worsened matters in the end. Hence, because of the risk that partner’s flaws might possibly cause disappointment to one’s high expectation, other researchers offer slightly different way of looking at the issue of positive illusions.

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