Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Marriage Needs Rose Colored Glasses

October 30, 1995

"I married the world's most wonderful woman. Sorry fellas."

I listened to my friend's statement and disagreed. I wasn't feeling sorry for myself at all. I was sure I had married the world's most wonderful woman. I'm sure that the vast majority of the men in the room listening to my

friend's bold assertion felt the same way.

How could all of us end up with the world's most wonderful woman? It doesn't make much sense. I was glad my friend felt that way about his wife and, given his attitude, felt assured that his marriage would last. After all, who would want to leave the world's most wonderful woman? Perhaps my friends and I are simply looking at our spouses through rose colored glasses.

Why are rose colored glasses important? Psychologist Caryl Rusbult of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her colleagues have studied the commitment process in marriage. They found that perceived superiority was a key ingredient in long term, close relationships. Perceived superiority is the tendency to view ones relationship as better than - and not as bad as - other relationships.

Rusbult believes that people view their relationships as superior because they wish or need to view them as superior. Commitment to a partner is the chief motive for the tendency to put on the rose colored glasses and see their relationship as superior. Perceived superiority also gives people an optimistic "habit of thought" a confidence to continue in the relationship because their goals and actions are likely to be successfu1.

People need rose colored glasses for those times when a relationship is challenged and threatened. When couples experience frequent conflict, they can focus in on the other good parts of their relationship that excel. Or when they are presented with a tempting alternative, they can put down or avoid paying attention to the positive qualities of other relationships.

Belief in the superiority of one's relationship enhances feelings of security, certainty and trust. It helps people to persist during the inevitable lows and hard times. The belief helps create the reality. Positive illusions make it easier to sacrifice for and adapt to a less than perfect partner.

Keeping healthy relationships is also important to personal well-being. Relationships give individuals love, social support and companionship. Having a rewarding relationship is a critical life accomplishment that promotes happiness and self-esteem. On a personal level, believing we have a superior relationship helps us feel successful.

Rose colored glasses and commitment. Rusbult feels commitment develops because of increasing dependence. Rusbult describes three characteristics of a strong commitment:

  • a high level of satisfaction
  • the quality of alternatives is seen as poor
  • the personal investment - identity, effort and material resources - is large.

Rusbult lists four ways putting on rose colored glasses helps sustain commitment.

1. In a situation of low dependence, it is easy to see things the way they are - to acknowledge the good and not so good qualities of one's partner. In contrast, the more dependent you are on the relationship, the greater the need to see your partner in a positive and optimistic light. The more you have to lose, the more important it is to view your

partner in a positive light.

2. With a long term orientation to the relationship, a partner isn't confined to the harsh reality of the "here and now. " He or she can anticipate that better circumstances will exist in the future. This positive illusion is kept alive by imagining what might come to pass in the future.

3. Couples enhance commitment when they use the plural pronouns, i.e., "we," "us" and "our" instead of "I" "me" and "mine." What is good for the partner is good for the self. Committed individuals may develop a tendency toward perceived superiority because enhancing the partner is tantamount to enhancing the self.

4. Strong commitment supports behaviors that build an unconditional relationship. Committed partners exert effort and absorb the costs of a relationship without counting what they get back in return. They also give unconditional acceptance to their partner - "warts and all." They translate their partner's faults into virtues or somehow see, yet deny, the negative qualities of the relationship.

What the studies show. In their studies, Rusbult and her colleagues found less perceived superiority in dating couples who later broke up. This study and another study of young married couples showed that the higher the commitment, the greater the belief in the superiority of their relationship. For married couples, greater feelings of perceived superiority meant greater couple satisfaction and adjustment.

The responses of the more committed and less committed partners in a relationship were analyzed. It was found that the more committed partner exhibited greater tendencies toward perceived superiority than the less committed partner. This was done by enhancing positive thoughts and inhibiting negative thoughts about their own relationship, and by enhancing negative thoughts and inhibiting positive thoughts about other relationships.

Which comes first when couples split apart - taking off the rose colored glasses or questioning the commitment? Either way, once the glasses come off, the downward slide toward divorce or break up accelerates.

I'm still convinced I married the most wonderful woman in the whole world. Sorry fellas. I hope you can say the same about your mate.