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Long Term Marriages

Air Date: 09/09/10 Dr. Rebecca Jankovich, PhD can be reached at 322-1839.9-9-10 Long Term MarriagesO'rourke, Neufeld, Claxton and Smith, "Knowing Me-Knowing You: Reported Personality and Trait Discrepancies as Predictors of Marital Idealization Between Long-Wed Spouses". Psychology and Aging 2010, Vol. 24, No. 2, 412-421. Usually when couples are coming apart, one of them tells me that they feel duped; that the person their spouse presented themselves to be, didn't turn out to be the person they married. We all present our very best Self when courting. We're infatuated so our brains are awash in opiates that buffer us from our less wonderful qualities and reactions. We fall in love with who we want our beloved to be; we idealize who they are and how well they match with us. Those who stay happily married keep the idealization going: they hold a positive picture of their mate even when their mate disappoints them by explaining away the disappointments, attributing good reasons to why the bad events occur, and quickly filing the bad memories away where they don't think about them much. At the same time, those happily married continually refuel their positive picture of their mate, thinking about their good qualities, good behavior, and how happy they've been and will be. The happily married can hold these idealized pictures of their mates when people outside the marriage just don't get it. Ever wonder, "what does she see in him?" or "how does he put up with her?" well, that could be this process of idealization at work. It doesn't seem possible that couples could keep these idealized pictures of each other in place over many decades; but, the research shows the happily married DO. Consistently, studies show that in contented marriages, marital idealization is stable over the years. How can you do that when you can't help but see what's off with your mate, or feel hurt and disappointed in twenty years? It's not that the person is blind to their mate's flaws; it's that the person interprets up when they experience the flaws. "Poor Greg, he's so tired by the weekend that he doesn't help much around the house"; "I know she's not the best housekeeper, but she's got so much to do that she can't get to everything"; "we had a rough patch a few years ago when John got involved, but we came out of it stronger". If you're shaking your head in disbelief, let me tell you, I've watched couples have this depth of generosity to one another, and those are the couples that stay married well. Researchers study how couples married for 20 years continue to see the best in one another. They've found that the long time married believe they know one another well, having shared life, disclosed their secrets to each other, dealt with the inevitable struggles and losses over the years. In the knowing one another well, they also accept the other for their good qualities and their flaws; the happily married focus on the good qualities. We know that the traits of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness predict the ability of the long married to continue interpreting up and idealizing one another; the easier you are to get along with and the more consistently you do what you say you're going to do, the more your mate will be able to like you over the years. We know that more disagreeable men understand they they're hard to live with and tend to idealize their wives, in part for putting up with them all these years, and in part because their marriage may be the most stable and enduring relationship they'll ever have because they're so difficult. We know that wives in long term relationships tend to see their husbands more positively than their husbands see themselves. We know that in the newly married, different character traits predict marital happiness than in the long married. In the younger marriages, issues of Neuroticism, more greatly impact marital satisfaction; these would be issues of anxiety, depression, pessimism, irritability and anger. Seems that if your marriage makes it into several decades and the spouses handle their mental health problems, then there's smoother sailing for the rest of the marriage. Sadly, if the mental health problems don't get handled, the marriage is less likely to go on. At the turn of the 19th century, the average life expectancy in North America was 47-48 years; today, it's in the 80's. Marriages have the potential of lasting longer than we used to live an entire lifetime. The longtime married show us that to pull this off, you have to cut your partner slack and be generous enough to interpret up, to reframe the bad and disappointing things so they make sense to you in a kind way; to deal with the bad and then file it away, not continually returning to think about it or throw it out to make a point; and you have to focus on the positive, to think about what works well. Idealization is a good thing.