In the 27th installment of SAGE‘s Relationship Matters podcast, hosted by Dr. Bjarne Holmes of Champlain College, Dr. Jennifer Tomlinson of Colgate University discusses the pros and cons of idealizing our partners.
In collaboration with Art Aron (Stony Brook University), Cheryl Carmichael (Brooklyn College), Harry Reis (University of Rochester), and John Holmes (University of Waterloo), the research team set out to test the idea that although idealizing partners is good to some degree, over-idealizing partners could have negative consequences as well.
To test this, the research team conducted a series of studies. In one of the studies, a particularly clever experimental design, couple members were seated at opposite ends of a long table and were asked to (separately) complete a series of surveys that, as far as couple members could tell, were identical (i.e., they thought they were completing the same survey). In one condition, the surveys were indeed identical. But in the other condition, in reality one couple member was instructed to list as many positive qualities about his or her partner as possible. Though this sounds easy, for most people after a few traits it becomes a bit challenging to think of additional positive things to list. Meanwhile, the individual’s partner was instructed to make a list of all the material possessions in their bedroom and to list at least 30 items. Here’s the catch: those in the ‘material possessions’ condition had to flip their survey page to complete the list of 30 items, thus making it very clear that they were writing a lot of things.
Remember, the partner in the ‘positive qualities’ condition was under the impression they both had the same instructions. Now imagine you were sitting there as a participant struggling to list positive qualities about your partner, while your partner at the other end of the table appears to have no trouble listing positive qualities about you. Would that affect how you felt about your partner and/or relationship? Perhaps…
Both before and after this task, couples sat together on a couch that happened to have a striped blanket laying across it. Thus, both before and after the listing task, the research team was able to secretly count the number of stripes the couple sat apart from each other (i.e., were they 5 stripes apart or 2?) — thus providing a measure of physical distance between couple members. The researchers found that, after the list writing manipulation, couples physically distanced themselves on the couch afterwards compared to how they had sat before the manipulation. The additional studies found similar results using surveys in both married and dating couples. Dr. Tomlinson explains, “They may have felt a little bit uncomfortable with feeling, wow, they think so many good things about me, and, so, they actually sat a little further apart.”
Dr. Tomlinson explains further, “If you feel like your partner over-idealizes you, you may not feel that they really understand who you truly are…If you think they have an unrealistic perception of your qualities, then you may feel they don’t understand all your strengths and weaknesses. People definitely like to feel positively regarded by their partners and they want to think that their partners think positively of them. But, there could be too much of a good thing.”
It seems that as people undoubtedly want to be validated in a relationship, one important step in that process is the feeling that a partner understands us and is willing to accept us for who we truly are – the good along with the less ideal. When we lift our partners toward the sky in awe, our partners may, quite frankly, feel we’ve not quite understood them fully. This in turn may lead to feelings of insecurity and perhaps even fear that once flaws are eventually exposed, we may just not like them any more.
Tomlinson, J. M., Aron, A., Carmichael, C. L., Reis, H. T., & Holmes, J. G. (in press). The costs of being put on a pedestal: Effects of feeling over-idealized. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, doi: 10.1177/0265407513498656