Is Your Spouse a Dream Come True?, available at: ForYourMarriage.org


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Is Your Spouse a Dream Come True?

March 11, 2011

There is nothing unusual about an engaged man and woman who regard each other as a dream come true. Couples often speak in thrilled tones of their great happiness at finding the kind of person to marry that they always hoped to find.

Conventional wisdom holds that couples will – and should – come down out of the clouds and lay to rest their unrealistic and idealized images of each other; otherwise, they risk experiencing great disappointment as newlyweds when they discover that their spouse is imperfect.

However, a just-published study suggests that newlyweds actually benefit during the first three years of marriage from some of the more or less idealized images they had of each other at the time they married. “Rather than tempting fate,” it seems to “invite happiness” when one’s partner is viewed as a close reflection “of one’s ideals,” the study indicates.

Amazingly enough, the study reports that “seeing an imperfect partner as a match to one’s ideals predicts considerable resilience in newlywed marriages.”

What difference does resilience make for couples? The study calls attention to other research suggesting that resilience and a measure of flexibility may over time enable couples during the time they are dating to “redefine their ideals to match the qualities” that they now, after spending more time together, perceive in their partners.

It explains that “as time and greater interdependence reveal exactly how” one partner fails to mirror the other’s ideal image, people who can flexibly adjust their ideals to match the qualities now perceived in their partners “might stay satisfied [with their relationship] nonetheless.”

Of course, it is no secret that when a man and a woman in love idealize each other to one extent or another, the people who care about them – like their parents — tend to worry, even though they recognize this as a common human tendency. No one wants couples to enter marriage naively.

That is why marriage preparation programs urge couples to develop a more objective understanding of each other before marrying. Certainly, experience shows that it won’t work to wish serious problems away in the name of love – problems like addictions, or lack of commitment, or abusiveness. And I should note that this new study appears to affirm this.

Today, the hope is widespread that couples planning to marry will think carefully about what “love” really implies in home life and take time to envision their long-term future together.

At the same time, people know that the power and mystery of love never are understood fully. Perhaps the new study reported here, published this winter in the journal Psychological Science, confirms this in a certain sense.

The study hints that we inject our perceptions of the one we love with hope. Moreover, the study found evidence that “seeing a less-than-ideal partner as a reflection of one’s ideals” tended to provide couples with “a certain level of immunity to the corrosive effects of time.”

Titled “Tempting Fate or Inviting Happiness? Unrealistic Idealization Prevents the Decline of Marital Satisfaction,” the study indicates that there may be “an upside” to a couple’s idealizations of each other. The researchers behind this study wanted to learn “how the illusion of perceiving one’s partner as ideal affects the fate of new marriages.”

One of the study’s co-authors is Sandra Murray, who teaches psychology at the University of Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y. The study found, she explained, that people who had an idealistic view of their spouse when they married actually remained happier over the next three years than people who were the least idealistic.

The study explains “idealization” by describing a man called Ron and a woman called Gayle. Ron “comes to believe that the specific qualities he hopes for in an ideal partner (e.g. someone who is warm rather than demanding …) match the qualities Gayle actually possesses.”

This is not simply a matter on Ron’s part of viewing Gayle positively or in generous terms, the study says. Rather, it involves his “seeing a match between the particular characteristics that one’s own partner and one’s ideal partner possess.”

The study suggests there often is a sort of “bias” in the way a man and woman in love perceive each other – a bias that possesses a certain power. Still, why might one person’s idealized image of the other yield “protective effects” for their relationship?

“People have the power to shape their romantic fates through their behavior,” the study asserts. It notes how “the behaviors that sustain relationships (e.g., being supportive) and the behaviors that undermine relationships (e.g., being critical) are controllable ones.” In light of this, the study speculates that –

“Believing a partner reflects one’s hopes might predict continued satisfaction because it fosters the optimism that is needed to behave well and cope admirably with the costs and challenges that come with interdependence.”

I doubt this new study spells the end of all those painful conversations in which parents plead with their head-over-heals-in-love children to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground and to think clearly about the person they hope to marry. Anyway, what are parents for!?

But neither are we about to see the end of the familiar human pattern by which people to some degree idealize the person they have come to love. The study reported here leaves the impression that this pattern is not always all to the bad.

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Marriage in the News

Marriage in the News

David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.


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