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Shankar Vedantam is host of the podcast “Hidden Brain” and co-author of the forthcoming book “Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain.”
My parents were married for 46 years. Right up until my dad died 10 years ago, he lived by a simple maxim: On all matters, big and small, my mother was right.
When she embarked on difficult personal journeys, it was because they were necessary. When she took daring professional leaps and suffered great setbacks, they were only temporary. In every conflict and argument in which my mother found herself embroiled, my dad was on her side. This wasn’t a strategic decision he made to purchase domestic harmony. He genuinely thought of her as the Delphic Oracle. He was all in.
Regardless of whether such unswerving faith was good for my mother, I have come to realize it was very good for my father. His delusional belief in her allowed him to lead a very happy married life. If my mother were a psychopath, having such a loyal conspirator could have led to disaster. But in the ordinary choices that families make — where to live, how to raise children, what to eat for dinner — my father’s simple faith in my mother’s infallibility meant many important decisions got made quickly, easily and without recrimination.
Many couples unwittingly undermine each other because they lack such simple faith. This is especially true when both halves of a couple have strong views. When you think you’re the expert on something, and your partner does too, this can be a recipe for conflict.
This is bad news when you consider we live in a world increasingly dominated by “assortative mating,” a fancy way of saying that people tend to marry others who are like themselves. (This is why you have so many lawyers married to other lawyers, or writers married to other writers.) Many dating apps, in fact, try to match you with people who are exactly like yourself, which is great until you find “the narcissism of small differences” can turn trivial disagreements into vicious conflicts.
My father was spared all of that. He was convinced that his wife had impeccable taste in music and books, and that she was infallible when it came to how my sister and I were raised in southern India. My father came from very humble beginnings and suffered great physical and professional setbacks in his life, but the anchor of his marriage — his belief that he was in an ideal marriage — meant he died happy.
To be clear, I am not suggesting you should just hand over all your keys to your partner. Being overly trusting can sometimes get you in trouble. There is much to be said for evaluating partners carefully and thinking through whether you are compatible. Some people are better matches than others; when it comes to romance, people who drive you nuts on Day One are best avoided.
But too many people, especially those who are highly educated, imagine that finding a partner with whom they will be happy over a lifetime is a matter of insight. As they stare into a lover’s eyes over a romantic dinner, they imagine it is possible to know whether they are with the “right” person. Sadly, this is impossible.
Not only is your partner going to be different 46 years down the line, you are going to be very different in a few decades. What you want now will not be what you want then. Over time, aspects of your personality will inevitably drive your partner bonkers. And no matter how compatible you think you are, any partner you choose will at some point cause you to question your judgment.
Most relationships, accordingly, benefit from a certain degree of self-deception. At some point, successful relationships involve transitioning from being with the one you want, to wanting the one you’re with. People in successful relationships are not those who have partners without flaws. Rather, they are people who discount their partners’ flaws and accentuate their partners’ virtues. They embrace “useful delusions” about each other.
If you want to be happy, you can do worse than to have my father’s simple faith in my mother. His wisdom, of course, is reflected in religious texts, such as the passage from Corinthians that is often quoted in marriage ceremonies: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
If you are not religious, perhaps I can offer you a secular saint instead. Here is Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s advice for a happy marriage: “It helps sometimes to be a little deaf.”