Real and Ideal Relationships, Part 2

In last week’s post I talked about the benefits of seeing our real partner as similar to our ideal partner.  I ended the post with the example where Susan’s ideal partner would score an 8 on a measure of kind and affectionate but her actual partner, David, scores about a 4.  So what is Susan to do?  How can she move the 4 and the 8 closer together? Does she stick with her ideal and work to see David as more kind and affectionate than she had originally?  Or does she, perhaps, change what she thinks of as ideal, so that a 4 isn’t as far from ideal as it once was?  As you probably guessed, she is likely to do both.

Behaviors that we might think of as kind or affectionate (and this is true for any characteristic) are often open to interpretation.  If David brings you breakfast in bed how kind and affectionate of an act is that?  You might decide that because he was already getting himself breakfast it wasn’t much of an effort to bring something for you too.  Or you might be a little more kind and affectionate yourself and decide that it was a very nice thing for David to do.  If you do this, your rating of David’s kindness is likely to increase just a little. And if you take each opportunity to give David the benefit of the doubt, then slowly but surely your perception of his kindness is likely to increase. If you have read other blog posts you know that I am interested in helping relationships last in the real world.  And in the real world, if David isn’t ever kind or affectionate then no amount of positive interpretation is going to allow you see him that way.  He has to participate in this process too.

The second approach is to revise your estimate of how kind and affectionate your ideal partner would be.  If we just think hypothetically about how kind and affectionate we would want our partner to be most of us would say extremely kind and affectionate.  But once we are thinking of a specific partner we begin to balance this one characteristic against their other positive qualities.  Perhaps David is a good provider and is great with children.  And if he has a great sense of humor then maybe it isn’t necessary for him to be any more kind and affectionate than he already is.  Our view of what’s ideal, then, has moved closer to where David is.  We started at a 4 and an 8 and maybe after a little bit of work we meet in the middle at 6.  David is more affectionate than you thought he was and being affectionate isn’t as important as you thought it was and, abracadabra (poof!), your ideal is now your actual  (J I think you know I don’t mean it will be this easy, but you don’t get many opportunities to use the word abracadabra).

No one thinks marriage is all fun and games.  Or if they do they haven’t been married for long.  When people say that marriage is work, they are referring to this kind of effort.  Murray and her colleagues offer a quote by Francis Herbert Hedge that describes this process perfectly: What we need most is not so much to realize the ideal as to idealize the real.  And my guess is that even Mr. Hedge realized that sometimes this takes work.  But as we often say here, it is work that is noble and rewarding.


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