What’s better for happiness and peace of mind in a young marriage—a rosy view of everything your spouse does, or a realistic outlook on his or her charming traits, and annoying habits? According to research published in the October 13 issue of the journal Psychological Science, it’s important to have a little bit of both.
In the psychological research community the role that perception plays on overall well being and happiness has long been debated, if never truly agreed upon—does having an optimistically biased assessment of yourself make you happier? Or is better for you to have more accurate self-perception? Those questions gave way to similar questions about relationships—is it better to have a favorably biased view of your partner, or see them in the stark light of reality? Is better to believe you and your partner are on page about everything—two peas in a pod—or have a more realistic evaluation of your differences?
With self-perception, psychologists have argued, optimistic bias and realistic accuracy are independent—you can’t at once believe you can walk a tightrope and believe you’re a terrible klutz, as the theory goes. Yet, perhaps in relationships there is more room for different types of assessments—at least, that was the hypothesis of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. In this latest study of 288 newlywed couples, the researchers set out to see how positivity bias (a rose-tinted view of your spouse), accurate perceptions and similarity bias (the belief that you and your spouse are practically always on the same page) both independently and concurrently affected satisfaction and happiness.
Study participants were asked to rank themselves and their spouses on a whole host of measurements—everything from extroversion and nueroticism to emotional expressiveness and attachment. After analyzing the data, the researchers found that the couples who were the happiest were those who not only had a mixture of optimism, reality and similarity outlooks, but whose views of each other in fact mirrored their own self-perceptions. “This finding suggests that individuals function better when the feedback they receive from their spouse is consistent with their own self-perceptions,” they write. What’s more, having a somewhat skewed view of just how similar you and your spouse are was associated with higher levels of marital happiness, they conclude.
Additionally, the researchers say, the finding that these different assessments in relationships are not independent, but can actually concurrently impact overall relationship satisfaction—and that they are tied to individual sense of self—may undermine earlier theories about bias and accuracy. “These findings strongly suggest that accuracy and biases should not be deemed as mutually exclusive. Instead they are likely to complement one another by serving uniquely adaptive functions in relationships,” they write. Future research is needed to confirm that these perceptions are driving overall satisfaction, not the other way around, the researchers say. But, perhaps too, additional research can address the issue of self perception; if these different outlooks can all fit together successfully in relationships, maybe there is room for them in self-evaluations too—that is, even if you trip over your feet sometimes, perhaps you can still believe in your ability to walk a tightrope.
And in the balancing act of a relationship, perhaps it makes sense to be both skewed and on target when it comes to your spouse. Maybe you’re realistic about certain things—how well he or she could rewire the house or perform open-heart surgery, for example. But maybe you’re just a little biased about others—like knowing for certain just how witty, attractive and charming your partner is, of course.