- People often compare their romantic relationships with other couples’, but upward comparisons, in particular, can have negative consequences.
- Research suggests upward comparisons are associated with pessimism, lower relationship satisfaction, and lower self- and partner perceptions.
- Couples who make more upward comparisons are less satisfied with their relationships at the time of comparison and six months later.
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 in Personality 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 of 78 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.
- Relationship satisfaction: Five items (e.g., “I feel satisfied with our relationship.”)
- Relationship optimism: Rating the likelihood of the occurrence of items from a list of 11 events (for dating couples) or 16 events (for married couples). Example: “The love my partner and I share continues to grow.”
- Self- and partner-perception: Rating the self and the partner on 20 personality traits such as “kind and affectionate,” “understanding,” and “patient.”
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.
Comparisons between inferior and superior couples
The results showed the following:
- Couples regularly compare themselves with other couples; downward comparisons are more common (though less impactful) than upward ones.
- After an upward comparison, people feel worse about themselves, their partners, and their romantic relationship. And when frequent, these comparisons predict lower satisfaction, even six months later.
- Upward comparisons affect not only the comparer but also his or her partner, resulting in lower partner optimism and relationship satisfaction and more relationship conflict.
- Only frequent comparisons with superior couples (as opposed to inferior couples) appear predictive of long-term relationship satisfaction. Why? Possibly because people usually assume their relationship is as good or better than others, so downward comparisons are expected. In contrast, upward ones are unanticipated and distressing, thus more predictive of satisfaction.
Making comparisons affects your partner
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 and his 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.
Should you make relationship comparisons?
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: Frequent downward 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.