As a couple, you may occasionally encounter other couples who seem to have a better relationship than yours. They may be very passionate, committed, or mature. Some might even be described as best friends, soul mates, stimulating companions, great sexual partners—as perfect couples.
Sometimes, you see couples who have worse relationships. They may have nothing in common, fight all the time, or have an unhealthy relationship (e.g., codependency, abuse, gaslighting). A few might seem wrong for each other in every way.
While it is natural to compare your relationship with these “superior” or “inferior” relationships, did you know that doing so could have serious consequences?
A recent study by Thai and colleagues, to be published inPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests cross-relationship comparisons affect not only your happiness and satisfaction but also your partner’s. Furthermore, as described below, the negative effects of comparisons can last for hours, days, or even months.
The effects of relationship comparison on relationship satisfaction.
A sample of78 couples (50 percent men), an average age of 27 years old, with a mean length of the relationship of five years, partook in the study. Thirty-eight couples were married, and 40 were dating.
For the follow-up survey, six months later, 41 couples and 25 individuals returned, seven of whom had broken up during this period. Returning participants did not differ in important characteristics from people who did not complete the longitudinal survey.
Researchers instructed participants to report comparisons they made during a seven-day experience-sampling period. They did so six times per day in response to a signal from an app. They then answered questions about the nature of the comparison and their mood, optimism, satisfaction, and self- and partner-perception. Nightly surveys were also completed.
After a week, couples returned to the lab to do an exit questionnaire using the same measures from the intake questionnaire.
Six months later, participants were contacted to complete a follow-up questionnaire, which included questions on optimism and relationship satisfaction.
The results showed the following:
The research shows that cross-relationship comparisons predict present and future (six months later) self and partner-perceptions and relationship satisfaction.
Making comparisons affects both the comparer andhis or her romantic partner. Why? The reasons for this are not clear. Perhaps the self-expansion model can shed some light.
According to the self-expansion model, people may use their romantic relationships to “expand the self” and thus experience their partner’s views, identities, and resources (e.g., knowledge, possessions, social status) as their own.
For example, suppose John and Jane are married, and John is feeling bad due to his upward comparison. If so, then Jane—to the extent she has included John in her sense of self—may experience negative feelings too.
Another possible reason—comparisons can affect the partner—involves the conscious or unconscious blaming of one’s partner. To illustrate, if John assumes Jane is at least partly to blame for their inferiority as a couple, John reacts to Jane negatively. Jane, perceiving the negativity, will feel bad too.
Repeatedly comparing one’s romantic relationship with other couples’ can have serious consequences. It can affect a person and their mate’s relationship satisfaction, optimism, perceptions, and self-esteem.
In this way, comparisons—particularly with “better,” “healthier,” or “more successful” relationships—could be just as threatening as other threats to the relationships, such as rejection, abandonment, conflicts, and attractive alternative mates.
Of course, upward comparisons do not affect all couples similarly. Previous research indicates that highly committed couples exposed to a superior relationship often see it not as a cause for dissatisfaction but as a model and inspiration.
So, if you are in a healthy and committed relationship, occasional upward comparisons may not have a negative effect on relationship satisfaction.
However, if almost every couple you see seems happier or more loving, intimate, and devoted than you, then there are problems either with your relationship or your perceptions.
In such cases, it would be helpful to take the time to identify the causes of your unhappiness and relationship dissatisfaction. Whether discussing your feelings and unmet needs with your partner or seeking professional help, it is important to take corrective action as soon as possible.
One last thing: Frequentdownward comparisons can have negative results, too, possibly because they encourage putting less effort into the relationship. After all, why work on improving one’s romantic relationship (e.g., learning to communicate better) if, presumably, the relationship is nearly perfect already?
This lack of investment in the relationship and this loss of motivation for self-improvement may contribute to poor relationship quality. Hence, frequent downward comparisons, while better than upward comparisons, could also have negative consequences.