Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Aug 07, 2020

How Happy Were You with Your Ex? Probably Happier Than You Think

by Aidan Smyth
Cynical guy looking upwards

Think about your most recent ex. How happy were you when you were in a relationship with this person? Do you remember your time with them fondly, or are you astonished that you ever dated them in the first place? Research that I recently conducted with Johanna Peetz and Adrienne Capaldi suggests that you may have been more satisfied with your former relationship than you think.

When people are in a romantic relationship, their view of their partner can be biased by their hopes and goals. Assuming that you want your relationship to work out, you may tend to view your partner in an idealized manner, through rose-colored glasses. For example, you might emphasize your partner’s positive qualities, while at the same time downplaying some of their not-so-positive qualities. As the saying goes, love is often blind.

These overly flattering appraisals of your partner can also extend to your relationship in general. For example, people tend to view their own romantic relationships as better than their friends’ romantic relationships and also think that their own relationships are less likely to break up. Although learning about these biases in how we view our partners can be a bit unsettling, some researchers have speculated that they may be an important feature of a satisfying relationship.

But what happens after a breakup? What happens when you’re no longer motivated to see your relationship with your ex in the best possible light? In fact, after a breakup, you may even be motivated to believe that your relationship with your former partner was never really that great all along. My colleagues and I were interested in investigating whether people recalled their past relationships as worse, after a breakup, than they said they were when they were still in them.

To address this question, we recruited people who were in romantic relationships and asked them how satisfied they were with their current relationships. We then waited a few months for some of those people’s relationships to break up. When we contacted them again four months later, 26% had experienced a breakup. At this point, we asked these participants to evaluate the quality of their former relationship, asking them: “Four months ago, when you were still with your ex, how satisfied were you with your relationship?” We then compared their retrospective satisfaction after the breakup to their reported satisfaction from before the breakup.    

So what did we find? It turns out that people remembered their relationships as worse in retrospect, after a breakup, than they had actually rated those relationships four months earlier, when they were still in their relationships. In other words, after a breakup, people thought they weren’t as happy in their past relationships as they had actually been. So, the former partner who was once viewed as romantic, adventurous, and spontaneous may now be remembered as too naive, reckless, and impulsive to have made things work in a long-term relationship.

What is the reason for this “sour grapes” shift in opinions about the partner and the relationship? One possibility is that this tendency to remember past relationships as worse than they actually were is protective in the sense that it may help people cope with the distress of a breakup. When a romantic partner is no longer available, a bias towards seeing him or her more critically might provide relief and mitigate regrets. Alternatively, it may simply be that one’s idealistic view of their partner ends when the relationship ends—the rose-colored glasses are removed.

Interestingly, even the participants who were still in the same relationship (74% of the sample) were inaccurate in their recollection of their relationships four months earlier. That is, people who were still with the same partners also thought that they had been somewhat less satisfied with their relationships a few months earlier than they had actually reported at the time, though not to the same extent as those who broke up.

Furthermore, at the four-month follow-up, people still in their relationships said that they were significantly happier with their relationships in the present than they recalled being four-months ago, even though they had actually been just as happy before. In other words, they thought their relationships had improved over the course of the study even though no improvement had actually taken place. This illusory improvement over time might be another instance of wearing rose-colored glasses. It may be useful to think that things are continuing to get better.

One interesting question is which of the participants’ two ratings was more accurate—the one that they gave when they were still in their relationships or the one that they gave when the relationship was over? In other words, do you assess the quality of a relationship more accurately while you are in the thick of it or after it has ended? We don’t yet know the answer to that question.

All-in-all, our research demonstrates that our perceptions of our romantic relationships, both past and present, may not always be as accurate as we think. Developing a better understanding of the types of biases that prevail during and after relationships will shed light on the dynamics that help individuals flourish—both with their partners and after their relationships end.  


For Further Reading

Smyth, A. P., Peetz, J., & Capaldi, A. A. (2020). Ex-appraisal bias: Negative illusions in appraising relationship quality retrospectively. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships37(5), 1673-1680. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407520907150

Balcetis, E. (2008). Where the motivation resides and self-deception hides: How motivated cognition accomplishes self-deception. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(1), 361–381. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2007.00042.x

Fowers, B. J., Lyons, E. M., & Montel, K. H. (1996). Positive marital illusions: Self-enhancement or relationship enhancement? Journal of Family Psychology, 10(2), 192–208. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3200.10.2.192

Gagne ́, F. M., & Lydon, J. E. (2004). Bias and accuracy in close relationships: An integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(4), 322–338. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr0804_1

 

Aidan Smyth is a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University. He studies mindfulness, goal pursuit, and romantic relationships.

 

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