Idealizing Your Partner ain’t a Bad Thing

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Most of us think the more we know about a person the more we’ll like them. But this isn’t always the case—at least when romance is involved. Often the less we know the more we’re drawn in. Not so much to learn more, but to linger in the unknown. Ambiguity allows us to imagine far more possibilities than reality allows. The other can person share our world-view, personality traits, humor, our infatuation, even fulfill our romantic fantasies. So we seek more time with them before reality, inevitably, gets involved, revealing differences. Depending on how great these differences, or negatively effect, subsequent information may be interpreted as further evidence of dissimilarity, and actually decreases positive feelings for the person.

Hence the saying: Familiarity breeds contempt.

When we initially fall in love, it’s with an idealized version of the other. Basically they embody a fantasy we’ve created. To ensure this fantasy, we attempt continuing to enhance this idealization by overlooking their dissimilarities or flaws. However, idealization is mutual. As long as the overlooking is reciprocated, the intoxicating feelings and the fantasy continue. Unfortunately though, reality soon appears in the rearview mirror, gaining speed, and making ready to pass, once either lets it show they are just another ordinary human, able to disappoint and be disappointed. It’s as if they’ve broken an implicit contract believed to be explicit. This is when the honeymoon phase ends, causing one or both ambivalence about the relationship and their partner.

The consolation couples typically try to believe is that this is when the “real” relationship begins. Having found a realistic comfort level, they should be secure that each knows the other for who they really are. This is, in theory, nice. However, in practice, most couples continue to struggle with individual differences and the disappointments they result in. Rarely do they fully accept their partner, but continue being attached to their idealization of a partner, distancing themselves from their real one. This is deep seated develop. Trying maintain the integrity of their idealizations, while compensating for reality, partners create narratives, or stories, to explain disparities with their partners. For example, if she is a spendthrift, while he is frugal, his narrative might be, “She is not careful with money/she is not careful with me.” At a point this creates an adversarial dynamic, in which each sees their partner as the enemy-other, where her purchasing a sweater isn’t regarded as a necessity but an extravagance. Yet in spite of this, both continue their assumed roles and associated expectations of the relationship, while maintaining a reserved intimacy.

Over time a person can have as much invested in the narrative about their partner, as they initially did in their fantasy of the partner. But rather than overlooking their partner’s differences or flaws and reciprocating, they seek to confirm their narratives, and ensure these by engaging in them. This make it difficult to step back, and consider what either is responsible for with any objectivity. These narratives can be untangled, recognized, and changed, but only to the degree that each is willing to consider their part and their narrative, and willingly understand their partner’s differently. It isn’t that a couple’s problems are unresolvable, but maintaining their narratives about the other, they rarely get to approach solving them.

The way we respond or react to our partner is determined by the emotional memories we form with them. All experience is initially filtered through the amygdala, the brain’s fight or flight mechanism, which is constantly scanning for threats. Unfortunately, the amygdala doesn’t operate by accuracy, but “better safe than sorry,” and is alerted to imprint perceived and real threats alike to memory. It does this to more quickly identify and react to a similar threat in the future.  The down side though is that a dismissing look, or being misunderstood, while common experiences in a relationship are, to the amygdala, threats to be quickly identified and reacted to in the future. So while a couple’s conflict may be verbally resolved, if their conflict has been imprinted as a threat, even approaching conflicts with a partner may be experienced as a threat. Both may genuinely desire repairing their marriage, yet at the same time demonstrate contradicting thoughts and emotions, obstructing and stalling the process.

Humans, unfortunately operate by emotions. Even at the most basic level, we rely on comparing and contrasting emotions to guide or determine our behaviors. For example, something as simple as choosing which clothes to wear corresponds to the emotions we associate with wearing them. We can associate a business suit with restrictive feelings based on one occasion, and confidence based on another. If our spouse rolls her eyes with disgust during even mildly tense exchanges, we might associate feeling disgusting when interacting with her and, as a result, be inclined to avoid her. Does the look of disgust cause avoidance, or visa versa? Even if the two actions canceled each other out, like a zero-sum game, they don’t cancel out the root cause or feelings. Again, that’s why repairing such relationships is so difficult. It requires stepping back and alternating between analytic skills emotional awareness, or, more aptly, coming to an acceptable mutual objectivity, despite a potentially more apparent subjective duality.

Given all this, it might seem like you can’t win for losing. If the same idealization that facilitates love, ultimately leads to disappointment, but the mature thing, accepting this, sounds like just managing on-going disappointment, WTF, right? If given a choice of the two, who wouldn’t want to give “the mature thing” the finger? So perhaps the solution is not playing by the exact rules. Why do we have to forsake our idealized partner entirely? Why not just live up to it, and expect that our partner, con amore, will do the same?

Stranger things have been suggested. Consider this though: research has found that partner idealization can actually protect couples from the dissatisfaction that normally characterizes the post honeymoon phase of a relationship. In fact, people who idealized their partners often don’t experience a significant decline in relationship satisfaction. This is a pretty astounding concept, considering we’ve traditionally been conditioned to accept that when courtship transitions to the less exciting reality of day-to-day relationship maintenance, romantic love is hard to keep up.

No doubt this is realistic. But maybe being “realistic” is better served in the way we idealize our partner. The protective effect of partner idealization doesn’t come from simply seeing your partner more positively, and trying once again to overlook their flaws, but bringing your idealized image of a partner closer to how you see your actual partner. The critical difference is instead of saying, “she’s perfect,” try saying “she’s not perfect, but she’s perfect for me.” Which is more realistic to attain? It’s a little like the maxim, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” It also prevents you from being at the whim of fate. Endeavoring for “perfect for me” still requires effort, but perhaps a more rewarding, if not preventative sort. Instead of later having to consider one’s part in patterns, or a dynamic that’s not working, recognize and take responsibility for what you need from the start, and be willing to express this to your partner. However to give “she’s not perfect” its fair due, one needs to not only recognize and understand their partner’s needs, but their limitations—respectively. While this won’t safeguard against problems, it will help distinguish problems from partners. This also helps prevent us from seeing our partners in either unrealistically positive or negative terms, and allows the possibility for understanding or forgiveness for a partner’s less than endearing qualities.

Similar to “reciprocal overlooking” idealization in this sense is also reciprocal, by establishing willingness to support each other to be their best selves, rather than criticize, point fingers, or keep score, and continuing to remind them they aren’t your ideal.

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