Keeping up appearances – it’s something everyone feels compelled to do. Long-term relationships are the stuff of a stable society, or so it’s said. We have a certain idea of what it means to be happy, and that notion includes having a “significant other”. But really, how fantastic is marriage? Why do we pretend things are okay, when in fact they might be falling apart? Are we just lying to ourselves?
Well, sort of. Marriage is a complex system of truth and half-lies. Supportive long-term relationships are good for your health and emotions. But even if you expect to like your spouse more as time goes by, often it’s the opposite that happens. In a 2007 study, psychologists found that the more people knew about each other, the less likely they were to rate each other favourably.
But it’s not all bad news! The human mind has clever ways of dampening bad feelings. As social beings, we want to be the same as everyone else. This means we’ve developed ways of smoothing over experiences that don’t fit with what’s considered normal.
Basically, our thoughts are flexible. One 1977 study using telephone conversations revealed that people’s memories, perceptions and beliefs changed depending on stereotypes others held about them. It follows that because there is a long-held truth that marriage boosts social stability and is good for raising kids, people hold onto that belief – even if they don’t know it!
Another psychology study showed that people responded with happy answers to questions that were asked in a positive way. They focused more on negative things when questions emphasized unhappy things. So even when I’ve had a mega-fight with my husband, if someone asks me how I’m doing, I’ll make up an answer that leaves out the bad stuff.
The interesting thing is that people believe themselves. Things can be as awful as all get-out, but that doesn’t matter as long as we think something different. If I can blame my hubby’s grumpiness on the fact that he’s working too hard lately, it’s all good. Literally.
Experiments as early as 1959 showed that when people don’t want to admit the truth, so they change their memories to make sense of their own actions. They’ll do the same thing for their spouses. If you hold unrealistic beliefs about your significant other, it actually helps your relationship survive. It makes my marriage stronger when I’m willing to make an excuse for the fact that my husband is being annoying. Not only does it help ease my bad feelings about him, it supports our feelings of togetherness and unity. One personal example happens often when he comes home upset about something that happened at work. I try to blame his mood on that situation, not on him – it makes me less likely to hold it against him throughout the evening.
The funny thing is – these mind and memory tricks actually work. They generate a supportive feeling in the relationship, where spouses cling to and defend each other. Maybe this means that long-term love really is “blind”. It’s a combo of positive thinking, white lies and acceptance of imperfection that makes a marriage workable.
A big part of creating this web of security lies in how we answer questions about our relationship. Psychologists found in one 1984 study that when people were told an action was healthy, they were more likely to suffer through it even if it was uncomfortable. Then, they reported that it wasn’t uncomfortable at all.
If we’re told marriage is good and healthy, we have a huge incentive to act like that’s the truth. People actively look for proof to deny their mental suffering over a relationship. It works for me and my partner all the time – we know in our hearts that it’s better to be together, so we ignore most of the daily irritations.
Maybe people “pretend” their marriages are working just because they feel a basic need to fit in with society. Or, maybe we make things easier just by thinking positively. We naturally tend to smooth things over with bright statements, and walking the talk actually improves our view of marriage.
It seems to me that a healthy long-term relationship does involve a bit of gloss. Where would the notion of romance come from, if we all admitted the shortcomings of our spouses? I wouldn’t call it lying – it’s just giving the benefit of the doubt.
Lone Peep is a writer, artist & dreamer who lives, works, camps, makes friends, listens to music and raises her children on Canada’s west coast.