Health & Well-Being

Life is Great — Relatively Speaking

The psychological tricks we use to feel good about ourselves.

Maintaining our self-esteem and being happy are what we all strive for. We put a lot of effort in finding things that feed into both of these, whether it be our careers, our relationships with significant others, or leisure time. 

Through our efforts, most of us are able to live reasonably satisfying lives. But sometimes we get a curve ball. During tough times it’s difficult to believe when, or whether, things will improve, and that can lead us to question whether our life or our marriage is as happy as we have a right to expect.

When such situations arise, we keep fighting the good fight and hope that things will take a better course, and very often they do improve with time. But we also try to nudge the process along, and we do that by reaching into our bag of mental tricks. That’s when the people we know — close friends, family members, or even casual acquaintances — can be very helpful.

But it’s not in the manner that you might expect. We’re not talking about relying on other people for comfort, emotional support, or advice. In fact, the benefit they provide is completely unintended, and they’re not likely to be thrilled to know they’re helping by playing an unflattering role in our thought processes.

Let’s say your marriage is not where you want it to be. Your partner does or says things that get under you skin, or doesn’t do things you’d like them to do. But maybe at the same time you’re not sure your expectations as to what you want or don’t want are realistic.

Here’s how other people help — they give us something to compare to. We gauge the quality of our own marriage by observing other couples. We might use them to identify things we do well as a couple and areas where we could use improvement. But these comparisons are done with a single motive in mind. We want to make ourselves feel good, and we can do that when we’re able to say to ourselves that…

“My marriage is at least as good, if not better, and maybe much better, than yours.”

This really isn’t so difficult, since we’re already predisposed to think our own relationship is better than that of many of our friends and acquaintances.  

But to make a “Mine is as good or better” claim to yourself, you have to make downward comparisons. We focus on couples that don’t seem very happy or appear to have problems. We avoid making upward comparisons because they’re risky. It can be hard to feel good about our partner and stay committed to our marriage if we compare it to one that we think is better. On the other hand, if we compare our relationship to ones we think are inferior, we have a pretty good chance of feeling good about our own.

If we still have a hard time convincing ourselves that our marriage is as good or better than others by making broad comparisons, we’ll focus on the details. We’ll compare specific aspects of other marriages and think they’re not as good as our own, or we’ll look at the bad elements of other relationships as worse than the bad ones we have. To do this, we have to place more importance on what we see as the negatives of their marriages and less importance on our own negatives. We’re usually successful at drawing such conclusions.


A good comparison couple

But let’s assume we’re not. So now we have to look at their marriages and attribute negative intentions and motives to what partners say or do for each other, even if those things are positive. We might believe a wife treats her husband with kindness because she’s afraid of losing him, or a husband does nice things for his wife because she’s so demanding and he’s just trying to keep her off his back.

As we move through this process we might have to amend the conclusion we’re trying to reach:

“Ours is better than yours, and if not yours, certainly theirs, and if not in every way, at least in some ways.”

And if that still doesn’t get us there, we comfort ourselves with, “Well, at least we don’t have their problems.” Focusing on the specific things we do better as a couple, even if these things are minor, still lets us feel our relationship is a good one. If we can believe that, then we can also believe we have a good partner who deserves to be thought of in nice ways — and positive thoughts are always good for a marriage.

Downward comparisons to other couples are especially useful when a marriage has problems and we can’t easily come up with solutions. We can feel better and more secure if we believe that other relationships have as many or more difficulties. It’s not that we’re happy that other couples aren’t doing well, but when we feel badly, it helps to believe that we’re not alone, or that things could be worse.

     Not so good

All is not lost if you’re unable to come up with suitable comparison couples — we can use other mental strategies. We can make comparisons to past times in our own relationship, and adopt the perspective that things are not as bad as they used to be, or convince ourselves that, while we’re not doing as well right now, things will eventually improve. In this way couples are able to admit to feeling unhappy, but still feel good about their relationship overall because there’s hope for the future.

Now, you may conclude that such mental hi-jinks are just a way of fooling yourself. That may be the case, but not necessarily. Sometimes we may be over-critical, or we may have expectations that are unrealistic, and so such comparisons can make us a little more grounded. That doesn’t mean we’ll be happier, but its helpful to believe that things are not as bad as we think they are. 

These mental tools also serve another purpose — they allow us to maintain a positive global perception of our marriage. This is the tendency to keep more positive than negative thoughts about our partner, despite their faults. Our global perspective plays a key role in marital quality because it directs how we think and feel about our partner, and these thoughts and feelings determine how we treat them. Our partner will pick up on that, and they in turn are likely to feel and think better about you. 

In other words, it can be self-fulfilling.

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