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Optimism and Relationships

A recent study found an unusual relationship between optimism and relationship satisfaction.  While people who had a highly optimistic view of the world in general had higher levels of relationship satisfaction, those who had highly optimistic views of the relationship itself had lower levels of relationship satisfaction. Those high in optimism also demonstrated different problem solving styles in the relationship than those highly optimistic about the relationship.  The former were more likely to use positive problem solving strategies like brain storming or developing a shared definition of the problem, while the latter were more likely to use negative strategies like avoiding difficult topics or suppressing their own desires and needs.

How do we make sense of this?  It probably makes a difference that the subjects of the study were newlyweds who were followed for the first four years of their marriages.  It seems likely to me the optimism about the relationship exhibited by the subjects had a bit of the fairy tale quality to it; that good relation-ships are easy and fulfilling without much work. 

Optimism in general should be good for a relationship.  It helps people have hope that problems can be overcome and helps people stay attached to the idea that a relation-ship can be fulfilling and satisfying.  Positive people are also going to be more likely to use positive, growth producing strategies to resolve issues that come up.  On the other hand, a belief in the idea that relationships always feel wonderful and fulfilling can lead to a tendency to avoid anything that looks or feels difficult or uncomfortable. 

The reality is that relationships require effort.  I’m not going to say they are difficult, because they don’t have to be, but they do require effort to keep them clicking along in a healthy and enjoyable way.  In order to live a relationship that way you must have a belief that things are not always going to be rosy and they may get uncomfortable.  While general optimism will help with this, at least rose-colored glasses optimism about the relationship is likely to get in the way.

So, be optimistic about your relationship and the idea that it can be fulfilling for you.  But be realistically optimistic.  Keep in mind all relationships have their struggles and their problems and at times they don’t feel great.  You need an optimism that lets you see the great potential in the relationship in spite of the occasional struggle rather than one that suggests there shouldn’t be a struggle in the first place.