Those individuals who are most likely to idealize their partners are those who are also most likely to be disappointed. It also seems to be the case that those most likely to idealize their partners are those who are most likely to move quickly from engagement (or an equivalent but less formal relationship) to marriage. Such a quick trip from first date to the altar is often a very poor choice in the long run, as summarized below:
Waller... assumed that courting couples are generally blissful, optimistic lovers who, in order to sustain their romance, draw attention to their desirable qualities, suppress thoughts and behaviors that might weaken their romance, and try to see the best in the other person. After they are married, however, spouses may no longer be as motivated to "put their best foot forward" to impress their marriage partners; moreover, the intimacy of marriage makes sustaining such idealized images difficult. When idealized images give way to more realistic ones and the intense romance of early marriage weakens, as it usually does, marriage partners may be disappointed by the changes (Niehuis, Skogrand, & Huston, 2006, http://ncsu.edu/ffci/publications / )
Although it is beyond the scope of this paper, it is interesting to note that the authors cited above found that both a very short and a very long courtship was generally predictive of a poor prospect for a long-term happy marriage. The description of the reasons behind this bifurcated finding (this is the authors' speculation, one with which I agree) is based on the feelings that arise in the premarital experience. It is important to emphasize this fact, that much of what determines a marriage's possible success come to light (or are produced) during the premarital relationship. This is not surprising, or it should not be, but it is probably the case that too many people, when they fall in love, do not consider how what they are feeling and thinking in that moment will influence the possible success or failure of a marriage Larson, 2000, p. 37).
Niehuis and her colleague (2002) also found some seemingly contradictory findings. Partners were likely to experience a steeper decline in affection during the first two years of marriage when the couple dated for either a shorter or longer than average (27 months) period of time and when partners had a courtship driven forward by either extreme or little passion (assessed by how quickly partners fell in love with each other, how soon they had sexual relations, and how soon they were certain that they wanted to marry one another... These seemingly contradictory findings suggest that loss of affection early in marriage results from two different courtship experiences.
In Courtship Experience 1, some premarital partners may blindly rush into marriage, because they have very passionate but short courtships. These couples may experience loss of affection early in marriage because of discoveries about their partner and the quality of their relationship.
I have added the emphasis to the second paragraph because it is this experience that is relevant to this paper. A short premarital relationship is all-too-inducive to allowing people to ignore differences as they float along in the hormone-induced euphoria that attends the first months of a relationship.
A very dry way of summarizing this phenomenon follows. If we take these findings to be valid (and there is no reason not to), then we are being presented with sound neurological evidence that what happens in the first few months of a relationship is by no means a good basis for long-term marriage or commitment.
It is noteworthy that when we measured the cortisol, testosterone and FSH levels for a second time, 12 -- 18
months later, in those 16 (out of the total of 24) subjects who had maintained the same relationship but were no longer in the same mental state to which they had referred during the first assessment and now reported feeling calmer and no longer "obsessed" with the partner, the hormone levels were no different from those of the control group. This finding would suggest that the hormonal changes which we observed are reversible, state-dependent and probably related to some physical and/or psychological features typically associated with falling in love.
In conclusion, our study would suggest that falling in love represents a "physiological" and transient condition which is characterized (or underlaid) by peculiar hormonal patterns (Marazziti & Canale, 2003, p. 294).
These findings accord with what many of us have experienced in our own lives: The first few weeks and months of being in love feel dramatically different from "real life" and so should not serve as a basis for making decisions about long-term relationships.
I'm Okay, We're Okay
Among the most important traits that are predictive of the possibility of a healthy long-term relationship is high self-esteem. This might seem counter-intuitive -- that thinking well of oneself is conducive to having a healthy relationship with someone else. But it is important to be aware of the distinction between feeling good about oneself and feeling that one is superior. But the more that one thinks about this, the clearer it becomes that such a trait is indeed good for relationships, for being secure in oneself makes it far easier not to be critical of other people. Having a high level of self-esteem allows one (in general) to be more tolerant and generous of others as well as to be supportive of one's partner (Larson, 2000, p. 119).
We might think about this in terms of physics: If one is trying to balance or stabilize an object that is off-kilter and about to tip over, then one should connect it to something that is absolutely stable, not something that is itself unstable. Of course, as with all of the principles that I will be discussing here, moderation is an important attribute. High self-esteem is a good thing, but there is a point at which high self-esteem becomes arrogance, and thus becomes destructive of the relationship.
I believe that the level of self-esteem that one has is to some extent independent of the relationships that one is in presently or has been in during the past. But as with all of the factors discussed here, it impossible to segregate traits into attributes that one has intrinsically and those that arise from within the context of a relationship since our personality is constantly being shaped throughout our lives both from within and without.
Another key aspect of personality that is highly predictive of a stable, long-term relationship is flexibility (Niehuis, 2006, p. 42). This trait makes intuitive sense, I believe, for most of us have a substantial amount of experience in our own relationships that tells us that when either we or our partner becomes rigid about a subject then there is likely to be conflict. Rigidity in interpersonal relationships can be seen to be a sign of lack of respect for the other person, an excessive privileging of one's own preferences and desires over that of one's partner.
Twinned with the trait of flexibility is that of assertiveness. These are not polar opposites, lying not on the same pole but on adjacent ones (Niehuis, 2006, p. 44). To be assertive is to value one's own choices and beliefs; to be flexible is to value one's partner's choices and beliefs. To be inflexible is to devalue that which is important to one's partner while to lack an appropriate amount of assertiveness (that midpoint between wimpy and belligerent) is to devalue oneself. Balancing one's values, beliefs, habits, etc. with those of one's partner is an essential skill in a relationship. All too often such a balance is barely imaginable to the participants in a couple in which one person's desires and preferences exclude the other's. Such a relationship -- like the objects in that hypothetical physics problem above -- are fundamentally unbalanced. Not only are they likely to topple over themselves but they (the person or our hypothetical physical object) will pull over everything else as well.
A final key trait that the individual likely to succeed in long-term relationships has is that of sociability. Again, this accords with commonsense assumptions about what allows people to get along with each other. Having a relatively high level of sociability is important to many relationships. If one simply does not like being around other people or engaging in non-solitary activities then one will probably find the companionship of a long-term relationship to be wearing rather than comforting. There is a possible exception to this: Two people who are relatively un-social (not anti-social, but rather introspective) may find themselves highly compatible in terms of a long-term relationship. In this case, each person is quite likely to have just the amount of solitude that he or she needs joined with just the right amount of company to avoid feeling isolated.