Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Unbearable Lightness of Positive Illusions: Engaged Individuals' Explanations of Unrealistically Positive Relationship Perceptions

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Unbearable Lightness of Positive Illusions: Engaged Individuals' Explanations of Unrealistically Positive Relationship Perceptions

Article excerpt

Recent scholarship suggests that positive illusions about one's partner are normal in satisfying intimate relationships. Researchers have relied on the logical argument that agreement with extremely favorable evaluations of one's partner constitutes a positive illusion. Engaged individuals were asked to explain their responses to a measure of positive illusions (Idealistic Distortion scale) to examine whether their accounts were consistent with the concept of positive illusions. The results suggest that (a) the Idealistic Distortion scale generally functioned as its authors intended because most participants responded to the items at face value, (b) engaged individuals used several methods to maintain highly positive perceptions of their partners, and (c) moderate and low Idealistic Distortion scores were somewhat equivocal and may require in-depth item analysis for clarification.

Key Words: engagement, idealism, measurement, positive illusions, qualitative, romanticism.

Throughout the history of research on relationship quality, researchers have been concerned about respondents' extremely positive relationship assessments (Burgess & Cottrell, 1939; L:Abate & Bagarrozi, 1993; Terman, 1938). The fact that 75-- 80% of spouses typically describe their relationships in a very positive manner raises crucial questions about the interpretation of self-report evaluations of relationships. The two most prominent theoretical explanations for these favorable self-reports are the social desirability response bias and positive illusions. Both of these accounts assume that highly positive descriptions of relationships are distortions of an underlying reality. There are good arguments and some data that support this notion of distortion. Yet there is no gold standard for assessing a relationship that captures an unambiguous reality against which a partner's perception of the relationship could be evaluated to assess "distortion." Therefore, researchers and practitioners interested in addressing the high favorability of self-reports of relationship quality must provide substantial evidence that these reports are best seen as biased or illusory.

Research on positively skewed self-reports of relationships has been conducted with questionnaire methods and researchers have proceeded on the assumption that respondents' answers to their questionnaires were unambiguous. An examination of respondents' explanations for why they endorse such highly positive descriptions of their relationships may provide greater clarity about the meaning of these measurements. The purpose of this study is to obtain direct, in-depth exploration of respondents' reasons for giving positively biased descriptions of their relationships.

Decades of research from several research paradigms have provided clear evidence for a positive bias in self-reports of relationship quality. In survey research, a high percentage of spouses see their marriages as happy or extremely happy (Burgess & Cottrell, 1939; Lee, Seccombe, & Sheehan, 1991; Terman, 1938; Weingarten, 1985), although this percentage has declined somewhat (Glenn, 1991). Studies have indicated that most people see their marriage as better than average and their partners as better than the average person (Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996; Pomerantz, 1995; Rusbult, Van Lange, Wildschut, Yovetich, & Verette, 2000). Research also indicates that both married and single individuals drastically underestimate their chances of divorce compared to the population likelihood (Fowers, Lyons, & Montel, 1996; Fowers, Lyons, Montel, & Shaked, 2001).

Edmonds (1967) believed that such highly positive responses were attributable to the social desirability response bias. He developed the Marital Conventionalization Scale (MCS) to measure the tendency to endorse extremely positive descriptions of one's relationship. The MCS assesses this bias with items that describe the marriage in terms that are, prima facie, impossibly positive such as, "My marriage is a perfect success," and "My partner meets my every need. …

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