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Why Your Friends Won’t Dump Their Awful Significant Others

Forget how friends, family, and others feel. People even tend to view their partners more favorably than their partners view themselves.
(Photo: Joop van Dijk/Flickr)

(Photo: Joop van Dijk/Flickr)

Try to think of somebody who manages to routinely hold on to a romantic partner even when you might not expect them to. It’s probably not too difficult. It could be the selfish guy your sister is always hanging out with or your high school friend who runs an anti-vaccination blog. These relationships lead to one of the most popular bar and coffee shop questions of all time: How are they still together?

Money, sex, and power are regular guesses, but psychologists have uncovered a range of explanations that are more subtle but also more profound. In the broadest sense, the strength of romantic relationships comes from the fact that people can appear quite different to their partners than to outsiders or even to themselves.

A study by Sandra Murray, a psychologist at the University of Buffalo, found evidence that individuals in satisfying marriages consider their partners to be more virtuous than their friends consider the partners to be. In a similar 1996 study (PDF), Murray asked participants to rate four people—themselves, their partner, a hypothetical ideal partner, and a hypothetical typical partner—on a variety of attributes, including kindness, responsiveness, tolerance, and intelligence. She found that a person’s ratings of their partner tended to align more closely with ratings of their ideal partner than with their partner’s ratings of themselves. That is, participants viewed their partners more favorably than their partners viewed themselves.

Visserman’s study illustrates how the motivation to cast a negative light on potential romantic alternatives can lead people to have a selective memory or derogate the behavior of others.

Murray’s results aren’t too surprising. People want to see themselves in a positive light, and thinking that your boyfriend is the greatest is one way to do that.

But it’s not just straightforward evaluations of partners that are subject to bias. Because all thoughts that degrade a partner pose a threat to a person’s self-image, people will engage in some extreme mental gymnastics in order to see their partner or their relationship in a positive light. Research suggests that the motivation to protect a relationship from psychological threats can influence how people evaluate complete strangers or even themselves.

In a new study led by Mariko Visserman of VU University in Amsterdam, females—some single and some in a relationship—were shown a photo of an attractive man and told that he would be their partner in a future activity. They were then told about a series of behaviors the man had performed. Visserman found that participants who were a relationship tended to remember more of the individual’s negative behaviors and rate those behaviors more negatively relative to single participants. In a follow-up experiment, participants in a heterosexual relationship tended to remember more negative behaviors if they were performed by an attractive person of the opposite sex rather than a person of the same sex.

Visserman’s study illustrates how the motivation to cast a negative light on potential romantic alternatives can lead people to have a selective memory or derogate the behavior of others. The findings mesh with prior research that shows similar tendencies when it comes to overall desirability and physical attractiveness. People in relationships, for example, tend to rate alternative partners as less attractive in the moment (PDF), and when recalling them from memory (PDF).

Perhaps the most revealing way we warp our image of romantic partners comes from a new study by the University of Maryland’s Edward Lemay. Lemay wanted to know what happens when one partner makes a disclosure about a specific need or desire, but the other partner’s reaction lacks responsiveness. In a series of six experiments Lemay found evidence that when people who value their relationship are faced with an unresponsive partner they tend to inaccurately perceive less self-disclosure. That is, when a disclosure fails to get a warm, attentive response it’s taken as a sign that it might have been lacking. In turn, perceiving less self-disclosure allows people to view their partner’s lack of responsiveness as less diagnostic of motivations or feelings. After all, if you didn’t really open up about what’s on your mind, you can’t view your partner’s lackluster response as a hurtful sign that they don’t care.

The process that emerges from Lemay’s study is essentially the “It’s not you; it’s me” behavioral explanation, but instead of prefacing a break-up it protects relationships by justifying one partner’s seemingly bad behavior. In this instance people are telling themselves, “It wasn’t your reaction; it was my explanation.” So while you may think your friend’s partner is cold and uncaring, the friend may see a situation where they’re just not doing a very good job of articulating what’s on their mind.

More broadly, Lemay’s study is a good illustration of how we constantly use those around us to calibrate our perceptions and gather information about ourselves. (Have you ever realized you screwed up only after a friend got angry?) The reactions of others constantly lead us to shift perceptions of our own behavior in subtle ways.

There is a flip side to the psychological magnets that keep two people close, of course. For the most part, these positive relationship biases are much stronger, or only occur at all, when people value their relationship and have the motivation to protect it. When people feel less optimistic about their relationship or their partner the story shifts.

In a 1998 study (PDF) led by Murray, participants with low self-esteem who were asked to think of a time they disappointed their partner reported seeing their partners in a more negative light. Similarly, in a 2002 study, Murray found that when low self-esteem individuals were led to believe their partners saw them as having many faults, they reported feeling less close to their partner and rated them more negatively. The same need to preserve self-worth that can paint a positive picture of your partner can also cause you to devalue them if you feel the relationship won’t last. If something is going to be lost, you’ll feel better if you convince yourself that you never believed it was important in the first place.

Overall, the research hints at an important tipping point in the life of a relationship. Stay on the positive side and maintain confidence in the social bond you’ve created, and you’ll see the world in a way that strengthens your relationship and your view of your partner. But fall too far toward the negative side, and you’ll protect yourself from the pain of future loss by convincing yourself that losing your partner is no real tragedy.