The judgments we make about the nature and efficacy of other couples’ relationships are sometimes voiced with admiration and perhaps even envy, or with criticism and dismay.
“They never fight – why can’t we get along as well as the they do?” “How come you never praise me in public as Jim does for Mary?” “I wish we had the kind of attraction and passion they have for each other.” These are statements about a perceived ideal connection.
“ I can’t imagine what he sees in her?” or “ She is so critical of him all the time” or “ I would never put up with a marriage like theirs.” are critical messages about mate selection and conduct of a perceived mismatched pair.
Actually, what people observe and sense during social contact with others may or may not be reflective of the experience of those they rate. It is sometimes most surprising to have the “envied” describe their own story about the emotions and occurrences at their home. “No one would believe it, they say. If they only knew?” Commonly, the idealized depiction is not quite as wonderful nor is the critical view accurate.
The evaluations of the couple’s level of love, devotion, or happiness, may be no more accurate than the assessment of our own connection. It is difficult to face our individual and relationship demons, so we look outside for reduction of our angst. “At least we are not like them.”
Couples, as most individuals, have a public and private persona. The image they project to the world may match or be different from the one they have behind closed doors. For some pairs the practice of being affectionate in public may mask their physical distance at home. Conversely, others who fight in front of their friends may not be consistently angry with each other, but possibly withhold their hurts and feel safer releasing them in front of an audience.
What is more crucial is why we notice and comment on the nature of other couples’ relationship? Dr. Salovey’s vocational aspiration research with Yale students concludes, “If you feel intense envy in a situation, it tells you something about yourself”. He amplifies, “It’s a barometer of what matters most to you, often things you hadn’t really realized mattered so much.”
Dr. Salovey gives an example of a man who noticed himself being envious of a couple who seemed very intimate and did most things together. “He had a happy marriage but had no idea until then that he wished they were closer,”
So when you find yourself commenting on other people’s relationships:
• Understand that your positive and negative impressions of your friends’ relationship do not necessarily accurately assess their nature or feelings.
• Avoid feeling superior to other couples, it is an unconstructive emotion and a false pride.
• Validate your friends for their positive interactions and see them as inspirational guidelines.
• Realize that what pleases or distresses you about others is really about you.
• Ask yourself, “How is this issue I admire or deplore in their relationship reflect what matters to me most in me or my relationship?”
• Start practicing the positive example you see in others, if it feels wise and helpful to do so. You can also say: “ I noticed how often Jim appreciates Mary, I would love for us to do more of it with each other.”
• Utilize the negative examples as mirrors of your own private or public conduct. If you are uncomfortable watching them fight, you and your spouse may feel likewise about your own arguments, even if they happen only when you are alone.
• Use the positive and negative assessments of others not as sources of shame or esteem, but as lessons for improved personal and relationship happiness.