Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Spring 2007

The Power of Positive Illusions

According to Shakespeare, “Love is blind” … and it’s a good thing, too. Studies on positive illusions in dating couples by Sandra Murray and her colleagues at the University of Buffalo showed that couples who overrated their partners’ good traits reported higher relationship satisfaction than couples who were more realistic. In other words, it may be better to distort the reality of relationships towards the positive side if you want to be happy. This is one area of life where being realistic is not such a good thing.

Now it also looks like couples who idealize each other by seeing the best in their partners are happier with their marriages over the long term as well. Many studies on marital happiness find an inevitable drop in marital happiness across the first few years of marriage when the reality of living with another person settles in. However, research developed by Dr. Ted Huston and his colleagues at the University of Texas on a group of Pennsylvania couples from early marriage days until 13 years later found that drop may not be inevitable.

They found that couples with trait expressiveness, the ability to show kindness, gentleness, and understanding, were protected from reality setting in during their marriages. This is because expressive individuals are less likely to be vigilant about whether they are getting an equal number of benefits from their spouses than they are delivering and are more likely to make choices that they perceive as good for both partners instead of just the self. Surprisingly even when their spouses were not delivering the goods, partners high in trait expressive-ness perceived their own marital satisfaction to be high. It is as if they are biased toward seeing their spouses as loving and benevolent as they are.

The UT researchers suggest two ways that positive illusions are associated with greater marital satisfaction. Cognitive strategies refer to when you perceive a high level of benefits from your partner.

Behavioral strategies are when you and your partner actually do nice things for each other such as expressing affection or performing thoughtful acts.

There seems to be a positive synergy between looking for the best in your partner and actually finding it and also between acting affectionately and perceiving that your partner reciprocates the affection. Spouses live up to each others’ positive expectations in these marriages in similar ways as athletes who expect good performances from themselves and their teams tend to behave in different ways that those who make negative predictions about sports outcomes. Spouses with higher expectations about their mates actually received more affection from their spouses.

In the words of actor Michael J. Fox during a recent television interview on how he and his actress wife have had such a good marriage over 20 years, “It’s all about cutting each other slack so that you each have the room to become the best you can be.”

Recommendations: Look for the good that your partner does for you and the marriage. Also, look for ways to make favorable and loving contributions to your partner and the marriage.

Be a Cheerleader for Your Mate

We have often recommended in our newsletters that partners work on both levels to increase marital happiness, the cognitive level of searching for the good things your mate does and the behavioral level of doing nice things for your partner. Both strategies build good feelings. Noticing and thanking the spouse adds to that synergy.

We have some additional recommendations about how you can present yourself to your spouse in a positive light. The importance of this strategy was aptly summarized by one of our clients, “Even if I think I’m doing the right things for my wife, if she doesn’t notice them, then I have a public relations problem.”

Every married person knows intuitively that the support given during the bad times is crucial and most marriage research supports this notion. UCSB researcher, Shelly Gable, has found that the way you respond in the good times in marriage might be more important than how you handle conflict. Shelly found that when one partner announces good news or a good idea, the other’s initial response determines whether or not the interaction feels satisfying to the speaker.

Imagine your partner comes home from work and shares the news that s/he has been given a raise. Shelly delineates four possible responses.

Active/constructive: You react enthusiastically saying, “That’s great news, honey, you deserve that raise.”

Active/destructive: Concerned about your spouse’s welfare you respond with, “Are you sure you can handle the extra responsibility?”

Passive/constructive: You are positive but without much energy, maybe because you are distracted at the moment, “That’s nice, dear.”

Passive/destructive: Ignoring the news altogether, you say, “Did you see Fred’s report card? How about those grades?”

Couples who respond with active/constructive responses report being more in love, more committed, and more satisfied with their marriages. Shelly suggests why this might be the case. First, it is possible that when you need your partner’s help during the bad times you feel in a bit of a one-down position while when you are sharing good news you feel good about yourself. Second, your partner’s active-constructive response validates your positive experience. Shelley calls this effect "capitalizing," that is, they amplify the pleasure of the good situation and contribute to an upward spiral of positive emotion. Third, and probably most important, is that your partner’s enthusiasm conveys that s/he “gets you,” knowing how important the good event is because s/he understands and supports your dreams. That makes you perceive the relationship as intimate and connected.

Increasing Cheerleading in Your Marriage

Here are some of our tips to use this powerful tool.

Sharing each others’ successes is a great way to increase the positive illusions of a marriage and to make an ordinary marriage, extraordinary.


Journal references available on request.

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