Have you ever gotten really bad relationship advice? I certainly have. I remember reading one book that suggested I ignore fourth-fifths of a man’s text messages and emails to make him crazy about me. Apparently, the authors thought dating only desperate guys would be a good idea.
I’ve also seen friends worry over personality differences between themselves and a partner. “Does it mean we aren’t compatible?” they wonder. Even though a large-scale study conducted in several countries found that having “compatible personalities” has hardly any impact on relationship satisfaction,1 the concept remains popular. The idea that certain couples have “compatible personalities” just sounds true—look at astrology and E-Harmony’s matching system—so it continues to masquerade as “good advice.”
If questionable advice is easy to find, where can you turn for good advice about dating and relationships? Relationships always involve uncertainty and trial-and-error, but knowing where to focus your attention can help. Decades of relationship research points to a set of “predictive factors,” or special traits and experiences that best predict relationship success. If you know your predictive factors and pay close attention to those areas as your relationships unfold, you’ll be prepared to make better decisions about your love life.
I’ve been on the trail of these “predictive factors” for a while now, and have written about four of them already—commitment, love, satisfaction, and closeness. Today I’m going to unveil the fifth. This one is interesting folks. It hasn’t been studied a lot, but in one huge analysis of 37,761 dating couples, it surprised everyone by emerging as the top predictor of long-term relationship success.2 I love unexpected results like this—it’s a good thing when scientists are surprised, right?
Before I pull back the curtain, why don’t you take today’s relationship quiz. It’s short, just 15 multiple-choice questions, and the personal feedback at the end will give you some insight into where your own relationship stands in this critical area. I recommend taking it now, before reading further, so you can give your natural responses.
Editors’ note: This quiz is part of a project on great relationships conducted by contributor
Melissa Schneider, LMSW, and is not supervised or conducted by ScienceOfRelationships.com,
other contributors, or the academic institutions affliliated with other contributors.
So what was this unexpected, best predictor of long-term relationship success? It sounds so simple: it was the perception that your date, partner, or spouse is a great person, someone who closely aligns with your vision for your ideal partner. This perception has been called “positive illusions” or “partner idealization,” but I like to call it the “Rose-Colored Glasses Effect.” If you think your significant other is the best thing since sliced bread, and a great fit for you personally, then you are wearing those glasses, my friend. And your perception is a powerful sign that you and your partner will stay together and be highly satisfied. Not surprisingly, the effect is even stronger if your partner feels the same way.
Just how powerful is this rose-colored glasses effect? In that huge analysis I mentioned above, just 5 of the 137 studies involved measured ideal partner perceptions, from 700 total participants. This handful of studies is small, but the results were powerful enough to put the rose-colored glasses effect at the top of a list of 30 factors. Only two other factors, commitment and love, even qualified for a “large effect” on relationship outcomes, and in this study, rose-colored glasses was the clear leader of the pack.3 Research conducted with newlyweds found a similar effect: people who believed their spouse was close-to-ideal just after the wedding felt just as satisfied with their marriage three years later.4 By contrast, people who had lower idealization early in marriage were a lot less satisfied at the three-year mark.
How can the rose-colored glasses effect help you navigate your own relationships? I have two suggestions:
1. Don’t spend more than a few months dating someone who isn’t awesome—in your eyes. If your best chance for long-term relationship satisfaction is finding a partner you think is great, then why not spend your time dating great partners? I’m not talking about turning up your nose at anybody who isn’t famous or beautiful. I’m talking about having an expectation that your partner should feel like a naturally good fit for you, rather than someone you need to overhaul or fix. It’s ok to give a new relationship time, and it’s normal to have some problems that need attention. But if its been awhile and you’re hum-drum about your partner, or need them to change several big things about themselves for it to work, then you don’t idealize them. Maybe you love them, and maybe you want things to work out, but you don’t naturally perceive them as being close to your ideal.
2. Don’t commit to someone who doesn’t think YOU’RE awesome. Relationships are a two-way street and if your partner has a low opinion of you, or is always pressuring you to change lots of stuff about yourself, that dynamic does not bode well. Not only is your non-idealizing partner likely to feel less satisfied after a few years, but research suggests your own satisfaction will dip too. Even if you start off thinking your partner is great, their toxic perception will rub off on you.
The idea that you’re supposed to see your partner in a rosy, idealized glow just doesn’t sound like good advice—right? Shouldn’t we be realistic, after all? Do our best to swat those hazy love-cobwebs aside and take a close look at our partner? “Be realistic” might be another example of advice that sounds good advice but isn’t. Instead, consider expanding and nurturing your capacity to see your partner as a close match to your ideals. After all, the people who can do that are still really satisfied after a few years of marriage. Who doesn’t want that?
So get your rose-colored glasses on, look around, and listen to what they’re telling you. They just might be the best relationship advice you’ve got.
Prior posts in the Predictive Factors series: commitment, love, satisfaction, and closeness.
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1Dyrenforth, P. S., Kashy, D. A., Donnellan, M. B., & Lucas, R. E. (2010). Predicting relationship and life satisfaction from personality in nationally representative samples from three countries: The relative importance of actor, partner, and similarity effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 690–702.
2Le, B., Dove, N., Agnew, C., Korn, M., Mutso, A. (2010). Predicting nonmarital relationship dissolution: A meta-analytic synthesis. Personal Relationships, 17, 377-390.
3Nerd footnote: Its effect size (i.e., how strong of an influence each factor had on the outcome) was d=.99, while commitment and love, the two runners up, weighed in a d=.79 and d=.76.
4Murray, S., Griffin, D., Derrick, J., Harris, B, Aloni, M., Leder, S. (2011). Tempting fate or inviting happiness? Unrealistic idealization prevents the decline of marital satisfaction. Psychological Science, 22(5): 619-626.
Melissa Schneider – Science Of Relationships articles | Website
Melissa is a licensed Dating and Relationships Counselor and the Co-Founder of LuvWise.com. Follow her blog or connect on Twitter. Take her free relationship test or work with her to get over that breakup and learn how to build your own great relationship, right from the very first date– find out how.