The makeups and breakups of celebrity marriages are endlessly scrutinized in the entertainment media. When stories of infidelity or criminal conduct emerge, such as the allegations of sexual assault currently beleaguering comedian Bill Cosby, the focus inevitably turns to the person's spouse, with speculation about the wronged spouse's awareness of their partner's activities outside the marriage.
Brian Ogolsky, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studies romantic relationships. Ogolsky spoke recently with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about the dynamics of romantic relationships and the role that illusions play in promoting domestic bliss.
Some researchers have suggested that couples who have higher levels of positive illusions about their partners and relationships are happier and their relationships last longer. Doesn't that run counter to popular wisdom that accurate understanding of each other's attributes and shortcomings is the key to happiness?
There is fairly robust research about positive illusions, which suggests that the couples who do best engage in these illusory beliefs. They think, on average, that they and their partner are better individuals and relational partners than others. Those illusions have extremely positive benefits for the relationship, such as higher satisfaction, fewer conflicts and less doubt about the relationship's future.
In addition, the people who believe their relationships are more likely to last - and are better-than-average - are generally more satisfied.
But what researchers find when we look at relationships is that "average" is "average." That is, despite thoughts to the contrary, some relationships may be just average or even below average, in comparison with others.
It's human nature to believe we are unique and our relationships are destined for success. These beliefs make us feel that there's a good reason to live life and stay with our partners. It's a self-protective mechanism.
Do we then filter out negative information that challenges those beliefs, even when there's overwhelming evidence that our relationship or partner is not exceptional?
Illusory beliefs promote satisfaction, which discourages us from thinking we'd be more satisfied single or with another person, so we're more likely to continue in the relationship that we're in than to break up.
Your most recent research found that dating couples distorted their memories of their relationships, recalling them as being more positive or less positive, depending upon whether they currently intended to marry. Do couples who are dating have better insight or objectivity into the health of their relationships than people who have been married a long time?
We know that married couples in general follow the pattern of developmental change: When recalling the distant past, they give themselves room for growth by "remembering" themselves as being less satisfied or less committed to their partner in the past. This allows them to appear as if they've grown, perhaps more than they actually have.
Unmarried couples whose stage of involvement - casually dating, seriously dating or engaged - didn't change during our nine-month study showed a similar pattern to the married folks.
However, couples who were moving toward a deeper level of commitment showed a nearly perfect correspondence between how they reported their commitment to their relationship currently and retrospectively.
What we surmise is going on there is that their goal is to be as accurate as possible to avoid making a poor decision when the stakes are high.
The couples whose relationships regressed - for example, they broke up or broke up and reunited - did something very different. They recalled themselves as being moderately committed over the entire course of the study. But when we asked them to graph their commitment trajectory each month, it actually went steeply downward.
They were doing what we call "amplification" - effectively deluding themselves into believing their level of commitment was stable, when it was actually tapering off. We controlled for the length of relationship, and whether couples were living together or not, and those factors didn't seem to matter at all.
We believe that these distortions about their past level of commitment allow people to justify remaining in the relationship - even when they're not that happy - and avoid cognitive dissonance.