Study: Do we want to be idealized in relationships?

What do we want most from a relationship: for our partners to view us as we actually are, or for our partners to see us as better than we actually are?

New research from Albright College suggests that while it might be beneficial for your partner to hold an enhanced view of your traits that benefit the relationship, like warmth and kindness, holding an enhanced view of “peripheral” traits, like athletic ability or leadership skills, is less beneficial.

"In general, having these kinds of rosy views of your partner might not always be that beneficial, especially under stress and conflict," said Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Albright and co-author of the study. "It may be better to be more realistic about certain traits on a day-to-day basis."

This study tried to answer a question that has divided researchers: Are people more satisfied in their relationships when their partners confirm their views of themselves (self-verification theory), or do enhanced or overly positive views of one’s partner lead to greater relationship satisfaction?

"We want people to see us positively but also to see us accurately and to understand us. This creates tension for the individual, who has these two conflicting motives," said Seidman. "How do you have it both ways? Maybe you can if you idealize certain traits and not others."

Seidman evaluated 264 couples over five weeks with her co-author Christopher Burke, Ph.D., assistant psychology professor at Lehigh University. One person in each pairing was studying for a bar exam and thus was under more stress than normal and prone to relationship conflict.

Several months before the bar exam, participants were asked to rate themselves and their partners on both central and peripheral traits. This allowed researchers to determine how their views of their partner compared with their partner’s view of him or herself. Then, in the weeks prior to the exam, participants completed daily diary entries about their feelings regarding their relationship and if a conflict occurred.

The researchers found that, at times, their subjects reported that being idealized on their central traits on conflict days led to better feelings, but sometimes it had no effect at all. "With the central traits, it's not going to hurt to idealize and it may help with some people," said Seidman. "It's somewhere between neutral and positive."

Meanwhile, researchers found that verification of one's peripheral traits led to more positive results than idealization or enhancement did.

"In this case, it was actually better to be accurate," said Seidman.

The study, titled “Partner enhancement versus verification and emotional responses to daily conflict,” was published in the May 2015 edition of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships

Source Contact Information

Albright College
Assistant Professor of Psychology