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Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.


My Marriage is Great—Relatively Speaking

To believe our relationship is working, we might resort to psychological tricks.

Being happy in a relationship is what we all strive for. We put a lot of effort in finding ways to make sure it stays on an even keel and both partners have their needs met. Much of the time we’re successful, and we have reasonably satisfying relationships. But sometimes life throws us a curveball and it's difficult to see if and when things will improve. That can lead us to question whether 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, or at least one that's less aggravating, and very often things do improve. But we also try to nudge the process along, and we do that by reaching into our bag of mental tools. Here's where 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 to provide us with comfort, emotional support, or advice. In fact, the benefit they can provide is completely unintended, and it's not likely they would be thrilled to hear about the unflattering role they're playing in your thought processes.

Let's say your partner does or says things that get under your skin, or doesn't do things you'd like them to do. But maybe at the same time you're not sure you're being realistic to expect the things you want or don't want.

Here's where other people step in -- they give us something to compare our own relationship to. When times get tough we’re prone to 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. However, we have another motive for making these comparisons. 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 most of us are already predisposed to think our relationship is better than that of many of our friends and acquaintances.

In order for us to make a "Mine is better" claim, we go for downward comparisons. We’ll focus on couples that don’t seem very happy or appear to have problems. We have to avoid making upward comparisons because they’re risky. It can be hard to feel good about our partner and stay committed if we compare our marriage to one that we think is better. Instead, if we compare our relationship to those we think are inferior, we have a better chance of feeling good about our own.

If we have a hard time convincing ourselves that our marriage is as good or better than others in general, we’ll focus on the details. We’ll make comparisons to specific aspects of their marriages and think they are not as good as our own, or we’ll look at the bad aspects of their relationships as worse than the bad aspects of our own. 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.

And if that still doesn't work, we’ll look at their marriages and attribute negative intentions and motives to what they 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, he’s just trying to keep her off his back.

And if we're still not getting it done 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.

Going to this next level requires that we 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 doesn’t work, 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.

Downward comparisons 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 bad, it helps to believe that we’re not alone, or things could be worse.

Now, you may draw the conclusion that such mental acrobatics 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.

But these mental tools serve another purpose -- the allow us to maintain a positive global perception of our partner. This is something we discussed in our last article, and this is about the tendency to view our partner favorably on a broad level, despite their faults. Our global perspective plays a key role in the quality of our marriage because it directs how we think and feel about our partner, and these thoughts and feelings determine how we treat them. With a positive global perspective, we’re likely to treat our partner well, and they in turn are likely to feel and think better about you and behave toward you in a similar manner. In other words, it can be self-fulfilling.


About the Author

Rob Pascale, Ph.D., is a research psychologist. Lou Primavera, Ph.D., is the dean of the School of Health Sciences at Touro Colleges. They are the authors of Making Marriage Work.