Relationships

Do Other People's Relationships Seem Better than Yours?

Know your role in evaluating your relationship.

Posted Jun 27, 2019

Rawpixel/Pexels
Source: Rawpixel/Pexels

When your friend receives a dozen roses from her partner "just to brighten her day," do you feel a little annoyed about your own relationship? And if these roses arrive for you, is your satisfaction in part because your co-workers aren't receiving bouquets, making your relationship somehow better? Or imagine that you hear a stranger belittling her partner on the phone—do you suddenly (if secretly) feel really good about your own relationship?

Relationships are not isolated experiences. Whether it's a new fling or a well-established partnership, your couplehood occurs within a social context that includes other relationships, and as such, those other relationships can influence your own. If you have ever compared your own relationship with those you encounter elsewhere (friends, parents, TV characters), then you are familiar with the idea of relationship comparisons.

Why do people make relationship comparisons?

Social comparisons help us understand ourselves, so it's no surprise that relationship comparisons are tactics we might use to help us make sense of our own relationships. Are you in a happy relationship? Are you and your partner going to stay together? Should you break-up? By looking at the relationships around us, we seek evidence that might help us gain a stronger sense of our own relationship's strengths (or weaknesses).

Relationship comparisons generally fall into one of three categories (Morry & Sucharyna, 2016):

  • Positive Upward Comparisons: "They're so happy, and we will be that way too!"
  • Positive Downward Comparisons: "We're so much more interesting than they are."
  • Negative Interpretations Through Comparisons, which include two types:
    • Negative upward: "It's clear they're in more love than we are."
    • Negative downward: "We're just as boring as they are."
  • Negative upward: "It's clear they're in more love than we are."
  • Negative downward: "We're just as boring as they are."

Upward comparisons involve comparing one's own relationship to a couple judged as relatively "better" on some aspect or trait, while downward comparisons involve comparing one's own relationship to a seemingly "worse" couple. In general, people are more likely to make positive relationship comparisons than negative relationship comparisons (Morry & Sucharyna, 2016).

What your comparisons might reveal

People who make more negative relationship comparisons tend to report less commitment to their partners, are not ignoring potential alternative partners, report less satisfaction, and are actively engaged in the kinds of behaviors (e.g., neglect) that tend to make it tough to keep a relationship intact (Morry & Sucharyna, 2016).

In other words, if you're regularly comparing your own relationship with your friends', and their relationships seem perpetually better than yours, then this may correspond with general unhappiness in your own relationship.

Meanwhile, people who lean towards making positive interpretations from relationship comparisons generally report healthier relationship functioning (Morry & Sucharyna, 2016). These individuals are less interested in other people (i.e., are focused on their own partner), and are both more committed (positive upward comparisons) and more satisfied in their relationships (positive downward comparisons).

Not fully known is whether negative interpretations following relationship comparisons cause changes in relationship evaluations and outcomes, or whether it's the reverse. Maybe poor relationship functioning leads to more negative interpretations, which makes good sense.

If you're about to break up with someone, you're probably seeing other relationships looking much better than your own. However, could it be the reverse? Could relationship comparisons affect relationship functioning?

Spontaneous comparisons

Recent experimental research makes the argument that relationship comparisons rendering different interpretations do have the potential to change how people view their own relationships, and we might be making these comparisons spontaneously just by going online to Instagram, Facebook, or the like (Morry, Sucharyna, & Petty, 2018). Cute couple selfies, relationship problems confessed in closed groups, news of friends getting together or breaking up... all of this relationship information may contribute to how we think about our own relationship.

Across two laboratory studies (Morry et al., 2018), researchers had approximately 350 heterosexual college students in dating relationships view mock Facebook pages of a couple who was clearly very happy (the upward comparison condition) or noticeably struggling (the downward comparison condition). Participants then answered questions about their own relationships (study 1 and study 2) and their well-being (study 2).

How people felt about their own relationship appeared to be influenced by the kinds of interpretations they made after experiencing an upward or downward comparison (Morry et al., 2018). In other words, after seeing the worse-off couple, people who interpreted their own relationship as superior in some way reported more satisfaction.

And those for whom upward comparisons were inspiring (e.g., "we could be like them!"), such positive interpretations predicted greater feelings of commitment and closeness, less interest in other potential partners, and great personal well-being. Evidence also clearly showed that negative interpretations following comparisons pointed to lower evaluations of one's own relationship well-being.

In sum

Relationship comparisons are a normal way in which people gather information that they can then use to understand their own relationship better. If you're uncertain about your relationship, you might be particularly apt to engage in these comparisons.

But keep in mind: It's less about making comparisons (which most people make) than about how you interpret the comparison. Comparisons are hard to avoid given the ubiquity of couple images and relationship event disclosures on social media. The real question is: Do you make positive or negative conclusions from others' relationships, be they "better" or "worse" than your own?

If you tend towards the negative, consider trying to shift your habits to attend to the strengths of your partnership. When your friend receives out-of-the-blue roses, if you automatically evaluate your own relationship as flawed in some way (e.g., "We're not as romantic as them"), see if you can highlight your strengths (e.g., "We are so much more intimate in our expressions of love than that"), or draw inspiration from others' happiness ("We could do those kinds of things!").

Facebook image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

References

Morry, M. M., Sucharyna, T. A., & Petty, S. K. (2018). Relationship social comparisons: Your facebook page affects my relationship and personal well-being. Computers in Human Behavior, 83, 140-167.

Morry, M. M., & Sucharyna, T. A. (2016). Relationship social comparison interpretations and dating relationship quality, behaviors, and mood. Personal Relationships, 23(3), 554-576.