# What Is the Nearest Symmetric Matrix?

What is the nearest symmetric matrix to a real, nonsymmetric square matrix $A$? This question arises whenever a symmetric matrix is approximated by formulas that do not respect the symmetry. For example, a finite difference approximation to a Hessian matrix can be nonsymmetric even though the Hessian is symmetric. In some cases, lack of symmetry is caused by rounding errors. The natural way to symmetrize $A$ is to replace it by $(A + A^T)/2$. Is this the best choice?

As our criterion of optimality we take that $\| A - X \|$ is minimized over symmetric $X$ for some suitable norm. Fan and Hoffman (1955) showed that $(A + A^T)/2$ is a solution in any unitarily invariant norm. A norm is unitarily invariant if $\|A\| = \|UAV\|$ for all unitary $U$ and $V$. Such a norm depends only on the singular values of $A$, and hence $\|A\| = \|A^T\|$ since $A$ and $A^T$ have the same singular values. The most important examples of unitarily invariant norms are the $2$-norm and the Frobenius norm.

The proof that $(A+A^T)/2$ is optimal is simple. For any symmetric $Y$,

\notag \begin{aligned} \Bigl\| A - \frac{1}{2}(A + A^T) \Bigr\| &= \frac{1}{2} \|A - A^T \| = \frac{1}{2} \| A - Y + Y^T - A^T \| \\ &\le \frac{1}{2} \| A - Y \| + \frac{1}{2} \|(Y - A)^T \| \\ &= \| A - Y\|. \end{aligned}

Simple examples of a matrix and a nearest symmetric matrix are

$\notag A = \begin{bmatrix} 0 & 1 \\ 0 & 0 \end{bmatrix}, \;\; X = \begin{bmatrix} 0 & \frac{1}{2} \\ \frac{1}{2} & 0 \end{bmatrix},\qquad A = \begin{bmatrix} 0 & 1 \\ -1 & 0 \end{bmatrix}, \;\; X = \begin{bmatrix} 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 \end{bmatrix}.$

Note that any $A$ can be written

$\notag A = \frac{1}{2} (A + A^T ) + \frac{1}{2} (A - A^T ) \equiv B + C,$

where $B$ and $C$ are the symmetric part and the skew-symmetric part of $A$, respectively, so the nearest symmetric matrix to $A$ is the symmetric part of $A$.

For the Frobenius norm, $(A + A^T)/2$ is the unique nearest symmetric matrix, which follows from the fact that $\|S + K\|_F^2 = \|S\|_F^2 + \|K\|_F^2$ for symmetric $S$ and skew-symmetric $K$. For the $2$-norm, however, the nearest symmetric matrix is not unique in general. An example of non-uniqueness is

$\notag A = \begin{bmatrix} 0 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 1 \\ 0 & 0 & 0 \end{bmatrix}, \quad X = \begin{bmatrix} 0 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & \frac{1}{2} \\ 0 & \frac{1}{2} & 0 \end{bmatrix}, \quad Y = \begin{bmatrix} \theta & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & \frac{1}{2} \\ 0 & \frac{1}{2} & 0 \end{bmatrix},$

for which $\|A - X\|_2 = 0.5$, and $\|A - Y\|_2 = 0.5$ for any $\theta$ such that $|\theta| \le 0.5$.

Entirely analogous to the above is the nearest skew-symmetric matrix problem, for which the solution is the skew-symmetric part for any unitarily invariant norm. For complex matrices, these results generalize in the obvious way: $(A + A^*)/2$ is the nearest Hermitian matrix to $A$ and $(A - A^*)/2$ is the nearest skew-Hermitian matrix to $A$ in any unitarily invariant norm.