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MARRIAGE DONE RIGHT

Marriage advice: Focusing on spouse's good points improves marital satisfaction

Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - 12:01 am

When you got married, did you think you'd found your perfect match?

But then the routines of life began to replace the excitement of “being in love.”

But reality doesn't have to come crashing in; it can have a soft landing. This was the conclusion of researcher Sandra Murray of the University of Buffalo, who studied 193 newly-married couples over their first three years of marriage.

She found husbands and wives who maintained the highest levels of marital satisfaction three years into the marriage were the ones who idealized each other the most when they were first married.

Idealizing means that, when you think of what would make the perfect spouse, you see many of those characteristics in the person you married.

Murray's findings are significant, since data from the United States Bureau of Census indicates the highest divorce rates take place during the second and third years of marriage. High marital satisfaction at the three-year mark is a good sign for the future.

Murray acknowledges there are disappointments in every relationship, but “initial idealization predicted sustained satisfaction over the course of the marriage.”

Thinking you've found the ideal mate is a wonderful delusion, but it is still a delusion. No spouse is perfect, and every married couple will have serious disagreements. But Murray's findings strongly suggest that idealizing your spouse when you marry helps.

Still, it may help more if your delusion is also reality based, or what might be called realistic idealization.

Murray alludes to several of these realities. She notes that “people have the power to shape their romantic fates through their behavior.”

Some behaviors have repeatedly been shown to sustain healthy marriages, such as being supportive, forgiving and seeing your spouse's actions in the best light. Likewise, there are behaviors that undermine marriage: being critical, holding grudges and always being suspicious of your mate's motives.

Realistic idealization may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it works. It's a matter of focus — focusing on your spouse's good points, while being aware of his or her weaknesses.

Your spouse isn't perfect in an absolute sense, but is perfect for you. Her or his strengths and weaknesses work as a perfect balance for your own pluses and minuses.

Idealizing your spouse provides what Murray calls “the power of positive perception” and equips you with “a generous filter that affords the optimism needed to cope” with the challenges of life.

When your spouse makes the inevitable mistakes we all make, since you see your spouse in a good light, this filter allows you to “perceive the transgressive behaviors as more forgivable.” It also helps you understand that, despite how wonderful your spouse is, sometimes he or she needs you to cheer him or her on and act as a backup.

Realistic idealization is not blind, however. Abusive behaviors and destructive addictions need to be dealt with or they will destroy not only your marriage but also you and your spouse.

If you have always had an idealized, but realistic, view of your spouse, you have a good start. If you haven't, the best time to start is now. Think of several attributes of your spouse that are also true of your ideal mate. Then make these attributes your primary focus when you think of your mate.

Marriage is unquestionably a reality check. But Murray's findings suggest a strong element of delusion may help.

2012, All Rights Reserved. James Sheridan's website is www.marriagedoneright.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.