With the divorce rate hovering around 50 percent, and so many people married more than once, it sometimes feels like humans are terrible at figuring out long-term love. The typical pattern starts with falling head-over-heels for someone, with all its heat-thumping, starry-eyed craziness, and it takes a while before that fog dissipates and the real object of desire comes into focus. Often, the truth doesn’t hit until after marriage when the real person, warts and all, wakes up next to you in bed wearing a wedding ring. Reality check, with its evil twin disillusionment, are sure ways to kill off a marriage. In a study to be published in July in the journal Psychological Science, Northwestern University psychologist Daniel Molden and colleagues were interested in the possible differences between the way dating and married couples see each other. They asked 92 dating couples and 77 married couples to complete questionnaires about satisfaction with their relationship, and not surprising, marriage changes things. Everyone, married or dating, thinks the best partner is one who acts as a cheering section and brings out our best. But that sort of relationship only translates into a truly happy marriage when the partner seems to accept real commitment and helps in the day-to-day obligations of life as a couple. The surprise here is not the switch from a focus on "me" to a focus on "us," as anyone who has gone from the first blush of love to picking up someone else's underwear off the floor knows to be true. What really stands out is the idea that satisfaction within any relationship is based on perception rather than actual fact, and therein lies the rub of not only love, but also of living with someone on intimate terms. In Molden's study, the authors focus on their subjects' "perception" of the other person, not the reality of the situation. If we perceive a date to be supportive of our goals, we're happy. If we perceive a spouse as committed to the family, we're even more happy. Although the researchers point to the shift in the focus of perception from ourselves to the couple as an indicator of a good or bad marriage, the real problem for love is the very issues of projecting anything on another person, no matter the focus. Humans seem to think they are really good at knowing others, but the truth is our own agendas get in the way of really knowing someone. As self-interested, self-absorbed creatures, our own thoughts, feelings, needs and goals come first, and that sometimes means fooling ourselves into thinking we are the center of other people's thoughts, feelings, needs and goals when, in fact, they are mired in their own business. But should we be disillusioned by our own illusions? Maybe not. Happy marriages might just be those in which both partners uphold a very nice projection of each other, even when things aren't so great. And this makes sense. Happiness is a state of mind, and if denial paints a partner better than they really are, the relationship is bound to be satisfying, as long as no one is slapped in the face with reality. On the other hand, surely there are couples who see exactly who is in front of them, and reality actually matches perception. Those lucky couples are not in a state of continual denial, but a state of continual bliss.
Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link). Her Human Nature column appears each Friday on LiveScience.