Dr Sandra Murray and psychologist colleagues at the State University of New York have published a series of studies that explore why we stay with our spouse. Is it because we can live with them if we're blind to their faults and vices? The psychologists compared what spouses thought of each other with what other people thought of them. They found that satisfied spouses tended to see more virtue in their partners than their partners perceived in themselves. This is impressive considering most of us regard ourselves more positively than is strictly objective; study participants rated themselves much more positively on various personality features than their friends did.
Dr Murray concludes that these illusions are common in sturdy marriages because we need to believe we are with the right person. A positive bias means we can dispel potential doubts or reservations almost in advance of them happening. After all, few decisions are potentially as fraught as committing oneself to a single romantic partner; in no other context, perhaps, do we voluntarily tie the satisfaction of our hopes and goals to the goodwill of another. To feel happy and secure in the face of such vulnerability, we need to believe that our relationship is a good one and that our partner can always be counted on.
A further study published by Dr Murray's group examined our preference for marrying a kindred spirit, someone who appears to understand us and share our experiences, probably because they see the world the way we do. The group measured partners' personalities, values and day-to-day feelings and compared these to marital satisfaction. Sure enough, those in the happiest and most stable marriages were those most likely to believe their partners were similar to them.
These studies suggest the emphasis in marital therapy should shift.
Therapists should perhaps encourage more deluded thinking in their patients, rather than realism. If you are going to insist on being realistic, maybe you shouldn't get married in the first place. Perhaps you shouldn't be a teacher either.
Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry, and director of the Centre for Public Engagement, King's College London.
His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org