Study (questionably) says delusion key to happy marriage

Are the happiest couples delusional? After reading the methodology of a new study making that claim, I come to a very different conclusion.

Couple in Hammock
Okay, congratulations,, you’ll get your fair share of clicks when you post a story under the headline “Research indicates that delusion could be the secret to a happy marriage.”

But the study on which that article is based supports no such claim, since the study did not look at “delusion” at all — either in the formal diagnostic sense or the pithy separation-from-facts sense.

Here’s how (online home of The Boston Globe) summarized the study itself:

University of Buffalo researchers recruited 222 couples heading in to apply for marriage licenses to fill out surveys on themselves, their partner, and their marriage every six months for three years. They then compared the self-ratings of respondents in terms of intelligence, creativity, athletic skills, etc., with how their spouse rated their attributes. Those who inflated their partner’s assets also reported being more happily married.

Do you see anything there about delusion? Me neither. I see a study comparing each spouse’s view of self with how their partner views them. Sure, when those perspectives disagree, you could say the happier spouses are “inflating their partner’s assets.” Or, you could say that the happier spouses have partners who deflate their own assets.

How someone’s spouse views them is only “delusional” if their view of self is perfectly accurate. If, on the other hand, it is the spouse’s view that is the one that’s perfectly accurate, and couples are deflating their own assets, couldn’t we just as well say that happy couples have delusionally poor self-esteem? That’s an entirely reasonable conclusion based on the data from this study.

We might come at least a little closer to some kind of meaningful conclusion if the researchers had attempted to objectively assess “intelligence, creativity, athletic skills, etc.” By all appearances, they did not, so for all we know, everybody in the study could be delusional. Or more likely, nobody is.

Occam’s Razor applies here: let’s go with the simplest and most logical explanation. Couples do best when they present themselves with humility, and highlight the positive traits in their spouses. There’s nothing delusional about that.

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Perhaps I’m delusional — let me know in comments or via email to ben[at] Follow my usually-well-connected-with-reality (but no guarantees!) Twitter feed.