My latest My Life column for The National’s M magazine

Shoba Narayan on idealising your spouse

Mar 29, 2012

 After 20 years of marriage, I am no longer the dewy-eyed newlywed who believes her husband can do no wrong. Now I view my husband’s shortcomings with stoic realism. Knowing his flaws, I believe, takes our relationship to a deeper place.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the eminent positive psychologist Martin Seligman believes that the more illusions you have about your spouse, the better your marriage is. And research by the social psychologist Sandra Murray states that a “certain degree of idealisation or illusion may be a critical feature in satisfying dating and even marital relationships”.

Love begins with idealisation. So far, our assumption has been that enduring marital happiness comes from removing these rose-tinted glasses. If we continue to idealise our partners after marriage, we are in danger of deep disappointment, the thinking goes.

Not so, say Murray et al. In a paper they published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they argue that when we idealise our partners, they adjust their behaviour to conform to our view. They try to fit our vision, to perpepuate our adoration. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Seligman says, people try to live up to the expectations of those they love.

I decided to try an experiment. Could I force myself to idealise my husband, Ram, and would his behaviour change as a result? I focused on one flaw: his tendency to answer mobile phone calls in the middle of dinner. He knew it irritated me, but there were always exigencies that made him rise from the table and pick up the phone. How to idealise this? It took imagination and effort.

I began by rationalising it. Though Ram took phone calls during dinner, he was an involved parent and spouse. When I needed to talk, he listened. He helped me to sort out my emotions and to figure out ideas.

The phone calls weren’t a big deal, I told myself. They usually took just a few minutes and once he figured out why the person was calling, he said he would call back.

Second, I bought his explanation. Ram works with people in different time zones. The problem with not picking up phone calls, he had told me, was that it took double the time to get back on track. By the time he called his colleague back in Singapore, Dubai or the United States, it was after office hours and the people had left for the day. Worse, the crisis that they were calling about would have erupted.

I didn’t scoff. I told myself that Ram wasn’t making excuses, but rather giving me an insight into his work-life and asking me to sympathise. So I did. I forced myself to accept his explanation. I made a virtue of it, and bragged about it. My husband had created an excellent work-life balance, I told friends. He cherished family time and did his best to ensure that it was uninterrupted. I said it as if I believed it. I tried to believe it.

Over time, I noticed him ignoring the phone calls. The first time, I gave him a look of adoration – real, not put on. I won’t say that he didn’t get what I was doing.

“You are trying positive reinforcement on me, aren’t you?” he said. I pretended not to understand.

In my view, it is only one short step to Ram putting his phone on silent mode while we have dinner. Until then, I plan to continue to adore him.

My big fear is this: what if he turns the tables on me? What if he picks out all my flaws and idealises them? I don’t think I could stand that.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India

Subscribe to my newsletter