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The Key to Escaping the Couple-Envy Trap

Remember that even the partnerships you admire have periods of boredom, burden, or dissatisfaction. ~By Joshua Coleman

As a couples therapist, I often hear clients compare their romantic relationship with those of their friends or co-workers. Some do it to express satisfaction with their own partner. But more often, they wonder if they’d be happier with someone more attractive, more sensitive, funnier, smarter, or richer than the person they’re committed to. Embedded in their ponderings are a host of other questions: Am I missing out? Is my romantic life all that it could be? Am I?

To compare is human. But this idealization of other couples elides how periods of boredom, burden, or dissatisfaction in a partnership are more expectable than worrisome. What distinguishes happy couples from unhappy ones isn’t everyday conflict per se, but how each side thinks and communicates about it. Indeed, the University of Washington psychology professor emeritus John Gottman found that 69 percent of the problems among the married couples he’s studied are ultimately never resolved. He, as well as other researchers, has observed that clashes commonly occur over communication, money, parenting, or the division of housework.

Meanwhile, the idea that other couples are having better sex—more exciting, or perhaps just more—is commonplace. “The sexiest period is usually the first year of a relationship, but over time, it becomes once a week and then erratic,” Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist, told me. Schwartz, who is also a relationship expert on the reality show Married at First Sight, said that many people have unrealistic ideas about the sex lives of others and can take these presumptions out on their partners. “Couples can weaponize this idea that everyone else is having it and they’re not. And it’s not a friendly conversation.”

Social comparison is a recipe for unhappiness. For individuals, studies show that comparing yourself with those who seem better off can decrease self-esteem. People who believe they are worse off than others might be at risk for poor physical health as well as more vulnerable to depressive symptoms and social anxiety.

Likewise, comparing your relationship with others’ leads to less happiness in your relationship. Justin Buckingham, a psychology professor at Towson University, and the researcher Lavonia Smith LeBeau developed the “relationship social comparison scale” and found that people who frequently compared themselves with other couples were more likely to experience low relationship satisfaction, feelings of commitment, and feelings of intimacy. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called this “positional suffering,” or the notion that our pain is created not so much by what we have in absolute terms as by what we have in relation to others. In my practice, I’ve seen many individuals believe that they deserve someone better and subsequently ignore or belittle the many ways their partner benefits them or creates a solid foundation for the other parts of their life.

I’ve also seen that not everyone makes comparisons in the same way. Witnessing a couple that seems happier might invoke inspiration in one person (“We could be like them if we tried!”) and despair in another (“We’ll never be like that, so we should just break up!”). This applies to “downward” comparisons too: Upon spending time with a couple that appears to have problems, one person might feel motivated to work harder on their own relationship to avoid a similar fate, while another might just take it as a sign that their relationship is great the way it is. In their research, Marian Morry and Tamara Sucharyna write that “it is not necessarily the direction of the comparison that impacts relationship quality and subsequent outcomes; rather, it is the interpretations that one makes.”

In fact, some studies show that relationship self-evaluations tend to be more positive after people are prompted to think about ways their relationship was better than others’. This doesn’t mean you should endeavor to surround yourself with unhappy couples or keep a superiority checklist to cheer you up when you’re feeling diminished. The point is that we can learn much from the couples that appear to be doing both better and worse than us.

Still, understanding that we can never know the truth of someone else’s relationship from the outside is the key to escaping the envy trap. Instead of superficially measuring our companions against others’, we should instead embrace the vulnerability of sharing our inevitable difficulties. This is supported by research: ​​In a study of low-income couples geared to improve fathers’ involvement with their children, the UC Berkeley psychology professors emeriti Phil and Carolyn Cowan observed that having parents of young children meet in groups to discuss their personal challenges seemed effective in reducing negative social comparison. “During the 16 weekly meetings, both men and women were encouraged to think more consciously about how their dreams and vulnerabilities as individuals affected them,” Carolyn told me. “Members often expressed relief and surprise to discover that they were not the only ones who felt stressed or burdened with parenting and communication dilemmas as a couple. Hearing the struggles of other parents significantly reduced the stigma and isolation that they felt.”

Although many of us compare our romantic relationships with those of our closest friends, the upside is that—if they’re honest—they’ll talk about their own issues, lessening our shame and isolation. I know this from my own life too. My wife and I have a strong marriage today, but we came close to separating numerous times in the early years of raising our children. Having friends who could say, “You think you have it bad? Let me tell you …” brought us back down to earth. It normalized what we felt were insurmountable problems and allowed us to see each other more charitably. These conversations illuminated that behind the seemingly ideal lives of other couples were sorrows and struggles—just like ours. Just like everyone else’s.

Joshua Coleman is a psychologist and senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, and the author of the book Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict.


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