You might think comparing your relationship to others will help improve it, but this isn’t always the case.
When did you last compare your relationship or partner to someone else’s or that with your ex?
With an estimated 6,000 thoughts running through our heads each day, it would be surprising if we didn’t make comparisons at some time or another.
But, depending on their nature, these comparative reflections can hurt both yourself and your relationship.
Don’t feel bad if you find yourself comparing your relationship to someone else’s.
“I think [doing this is] absolutely normal,” reveals Dr. Brian Doss, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and director of the OurRelationship program.
“It’s hard to know what a relationship ‘should’ or ‘ideally’ looks like, so we use our previous relationships, relationships of our friends, and our parents’ relationship as important benchmarks for our current relationship,” he adds.
In some instances, looking at other couples can help you determine the direction you’d like your relationship to take.
Viewing yourself in comparison to a couple you deem ‘worse off’ can also make you feel more optimistic about your relationship.
Comparing to a relationship you view as less successful is one of “several cognitive ‘tricks’ that we use to stay happy in our relationship — referred to in the literature as ‘downward social comparisons,’” Doss shares. “It’s been found to protect against subsequent infidelity.”
While comparisons are sometimes beneficial, doing so can be problematic if thoughts are negative and occur frequently.
This concept of comparisons negatively impacting your self-evaluation is called the theory of relative deprivation.
Relative deprivation can create:
- dissatisfaction (where there might not have been any previously)
- low self-esteem
“When couples compare their relationship or partner to others, it can often lead to dissatisfaction, resentment, and hopelessness in both partners,” explains Megan Haase, a licensed mental health counselor in Seattle.
And it doesn’t end there. “Comparing your partner to someone else erodes the sense of commitment and stability in the relationship,” Haase shares. Plus, “it communicates an ungratefulness for your partner.”
A 2021 study of 78 couples found that making “upward comparisons” (comparing your relationship to a couple perceived as being ‘better’) can lead to long lasting impacts on how you feel toward your partner and relationship optimism and satisfaction.
Meanwhile, 2006 research revealed that individuals who frequently compare themselves to others are more likely to experience:
Social media provides numerous comparison-making opportunities, and studies show using these platforms to draw parallels can significantly impact mental well-being and fuel emotions such as jealousy, as this 2018 study shows.
Indeed, a study in the UK revealed that 40% of women feel more unhappy about their relationship due to viewing other couples on social media.
What if you’re happy in the relationship, but your partner negatively compares you to someone else?
Research from 2021 found that being ‘upwardly’ compared by a partner can cause an individual to (somewhat unsurprisingly) feel negatively toward themselves and less satisfied with their relationship.
Rather than letting your feelings fester, it’s best to broach the issue.
“Let [your partner] know how it makes you feel and that you need them to stop comparing you to others,” Haase says. “For example, ‘I feel hurt and unloved when you compare me to Clara, and I need you to stop doing that.’”
This is also an opportunity to find out what “your partner feels like is missing from your relationship — not what other relationships do or don’t have,” suggests Doss.
Rather than focusing on what could be better, you can dedicate your energy to approaches that could help enhance what you’ve already got.
Going on dates
Use dates to reconnect, make each other laugh, and share the qualities that attract you to each other. Sometimes folks need a little push to recognize and be reminded of what they have.
Focusing on the positives
Engage in ‘contrary action,’ recommends Haase.
Though part of the addiction recovery framework, the strategy can be useful in any setting. “[This] involves doing the opposite of what you typically would do to avoid the destructive habits you have developed,” she says.
For example, when pessimistic thoughts strike, “write a list of everything you cherish about your partner instead.”
Trying couples therapy
If comparisons arise because you feel your relationship is missing something, consider seeking outside help.
“Relationship programs or couples therapy can be helpful in getting a better understanding of your relationship and making concrete changes,” Doss says.
Considering the realities
As Doss notes, “it can be helpful to remind ourselves that we often don’t have all of the information when we look at other couples’ relationships.”
As they say, “the grass isn’t greener …” adage is particularly true of social media, where people are selective with the information they post. Remember that friends can also be reluctant to share when things aren’t going so great.
Making comparisons is a natural and typical thing for our brains to do.
With relationships, favorable comparisons can:
- boost connections
- enhance self-esteem
- reduce infidelity
However, negative comparisons can lead to:
Instead of considering what others may or may not have, it’s helpful to focus on the positives of your relationship and communicate appreciation. It sounds simple, but doing so could help you and your partner flourish.