Real and Ideal in Lasting Relationships

Spend a minute doing the following: generate an image in your mind of your ideal self. If you are reading this sentence right after the previous one, wait. Take just 30 seconds to think of your ideal self. Consider personality. Do you wish you were kinder, more generous, or more patient?  How about physically? Taller? Shorter? In better health? What about socially? Do you wish you had a few more friends or were a better friend to those you have?

When I consider my ideal self I imagine a person who is more patient, a little less socially awkward, and in better physical shape. Oh, and someone who is taller and plays professional hockey. 🙂  The smiley face is meant to indicate that, yes, I do know these last two things are unrealistic.  (But a guy can dream can’t he?)

Psychologists tell us that, as long as the discrepancy between our actual and our ideal is not too large, making comparisons can be motivating.  When we see a reasonable chance of moving closer to our ideal self we can feel motivated to make a change to close the gap.  And even if we don’t get all the way to our ideal self, making even some progress can be very satisfying.  Not surprisingly, considering ideal selves that are unrealistically out of reach for us can be distressing.

Comparing our own actual and ideal selves is one thing.  What happens when we compare the actual and ideals for our partner?  The first thing that comes to mind is concern that if we make frequent comparisons we will inevitably find that the actual falls short of the ideal, and be disillusioned.  And many would caution against expecting the actual to match the ideal.  Unrealistic expectations have a strong influence on our ultimate evaluations of many things, including our partner and relationship.

In a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, Sandra Murray and her colleagues took a slightly different approach to the relationship between actual and ideal partners.  They asked 222 couples to describe themselves, their partner, and their ideal partner on a large set of characteristics seven times over a three-year period.  By studying the couples over such a long period of time they were able to look at how marital satisfaction changed over time.  They were interested in examining the benefits of seeing a partner as being close to the ideal image of a partner.

Before we talk about what they found, we have to address one discouraging fact.  And there is enough data on this to call it a fact.  If you measure marital satisfaction right after marriage, and continue to measure it over the next several years there is a very clear pattern, one that may explain why there are so many sites on the internet devoted to helping relationships succeed: the natural course of marital satisfaction is to decline over time.  If we were to draw a graph it would look something like this:

Marital Satisfaction

What Murray and her colleagues found was that when a person thinks their partner is similar to the image of their ideal partner, the decline in satisfaction is less than if they think their partner is far from ideal.

Well sure, you might be thinking, anyone who is married to their ideal partner is likely to be pretty satisfied.  That’s true.  But Murray and her colleagues weren’t studying realistic idealization (that is, thinking a partner is ideal when they really are).  They were studying unrealistic idealization—coming to see your partner as similar to your ideal partner, even when he really isn’t.  Let’s take an example. Remember, they asked partners to rate themselves, their partner and their ideal partner on many dimensions, like witty and humorous, kind and affectionate, understanding, and warm, on a scale that went from 0 to 8. If David rates himself as a 4 on the kind and affectionate measure (hmmm…not very kind and affectionate I’m afraid) but his wife Susan rates him as an 8, we might see this as unrealistically seeing David as ideal because not even David himself thinks he is nearly that kind and affectionate.

OK, our ideal partner would score an 8 on a measure of kind and affectionate.  Our actual partner scores about 4.  But there is clear value in seeing your partner as resembling your ideal—the more we do it the longer we remain satisfied with our marriage.  So, how do we do it?  How do we move the 4 and the 8 closer together? Do we stick with our ideal and work to see David as more kind and affectionate than we had originally thought?  Or do we perhaps change what we think of as ideal, so that a 4 isn’t as far from ideal as it once was?  As you probably guessed, we do both.

In Part 2 of this blog post, we will talk in more detail about how this happens. But the solution is rarely to end a relationship in pursuit of someone who is closer to our ideal. Next week we are going to suggest that closing the gap between real and ideal is a big part of loving the one you’re with.


In case you are interested…

Murray, S. L., Griffin, D. W., Derrick, J. L., Harris, B., Aloni, M., & Leder, S.  (2011). Tempting Fate or Inviting Happiness? Unrealistic Idealization Prevents the Decline of Marital Satisfaction.  Psychological Science, 22, 619-626.





About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit