Forget Optimism: Choose Realism Instead

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Today is my one-year wedding anniversary. And I’m trying to be less optimistic about it.

Hear me out.

“As long as we have each other and love each other, we’ll always be fine,” I told my husband a year ago. “I know that we’re going to make it because I just know!”

Sound familiar? That desperate attempt to bleat out negativity in the face of the cold, hard proof that not every relationship works out?

“We will make it no matter what,” I used to repeat like a mantra. “There’s no possibility we could ever split up. I know everyone says that but I just know it.”

What I soon found out, thanks to therapy, is that being so optimistic about everything all the time might be doing far more damage than good to my relationship.

There is a scientific name for my thinking, it turns out, called “optimism bias.” Scientists estimate that 80 percent of people exhibit the behavior, which quite frankly, isn’t doing them any favors when it comes to relationships.

Research shows it can negatively impact our readiness, awareness, and preparedness for everything from the way we conduct ourselves in marriage to the way we plan for the future.

Consider my microcosmic case.

I told my husband that love would always get us through. Then we’d have yet another major fight, often over something incredibly small, and our failure to communicate effectively (“We’ll make it!” is not good communication) did real damage. My optimism bias simply wasn’t enough to fix the underlying problems — namely, my temper and his sarcasm — which led to us repeating the same toxic patterns.

When we finally went to a marriage counselor because our fighting — despite my “it can never happen to us” outlook — became too much, our therapist told us some cold hard facts.

“As long as we have each other, we may not be fine,” I changed the narrative as I talked to our therapist. “I don’t know that we’re going to make it unless we both work really hard to get better at this.”

As Tali Sharot wrote in her groundbreaking article in Nature Neuroscience in 2011: “This phenomenon … known as the optimism bias … is one of the most consistent, prevalent, and robust biases documented in psychology and behavioral economics.”

Bottom line, she says: Humans are far more optimistic than we are realistic.

“Take marriage, for example,” she wrote in Time. “In the Western world, divorce rates are higher than 40 percent: Two out of five marriages end in divorce. But newlyweds estimate their own likelihood of divorce at zero.”

The reality is that all the optimism in the world can’t stop a marriage from going bust. Because shit happens. All that smug optimism and endless happy-couple pictures on Facebook don’t do much of anything at all — except further confirm your own optimism bias.

Which is probably why we never want to talk about it.

Have you ever heard someone say “Well I only plan to get married once?” That’s optimism bias right there. Everyone only plans to get married once. Be realistic. Try on for size: “Right now I’m married. I could be divorced. So I’m setting my expectations accordingly.”

Here’s an incredibly illuminating finding from one study that followed 501 newlywed couples over the course of four years: All of the married women who described themselves as “highly optimistic” about their coupling were more likely to report dissatisfaction later on.

In fact, a study earlier this year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin had the grim title “Should Spouses Be Demanding Less From Marriage?” The answer isn’t as straightforward as the question suggests. (How great would it be to simply read a one-word synopsis: “Yup”?). Psychologist Dr. James McNulty, who led the study, advised newly married individuals to “realize their strengths and weakness and calibrate their standards accordingly” – and that high expectations could be as toxic as poor communication.

Because optimism bias causes us to underestimate dangers to our relationships that are very real. On the other hand: “If you are aware of the optimism bias, you can commit to actions or rules that will help protect you.” For those people who are far too optimistic about even their own optimism bias, however, it causes them to think that they’ll just somehow magically “avoid the bad luck.”

Doesn’t work that way.

And that’s why, on this one-year anniversary of being married, I’m choosing to recognize how fragile the institution is.

“Happy anniversary,” I tell my husband. “I want you to know: I’m never going to take this for granted.”

It may be the most romantic — and realistic — thing I’ve ever said.

Is Optimism Dangerous to Your Marriage?