“Comparison is the death of joy.” —Mark Twain
“I love you more than coffee, but please don't make me prove it.” —Elizabeth Evans
Issues of comparison feature heavily in both thoughts and emotions. Is comparison of the self to others, which often leads to envy and jealousy, less poisonous in open romantic relationships? The importance of the comparative concern is illustrated by the story of the man who was upset because he had no shoes—until he met a man who had no feet. One person’s ceiling is another person’s floor.
Comparison in romantic relationships
“Last time I tried to make love to my wife nothing was happening, so I said to her, ‘What’s the matter, you can’t think of anybody either?’” —Rodney Dangerfield
Comparison is essential when choosing a romantic partner, for we compare their personal characteristics to those of others. Once in a settled relationship, however, our focus turns onto accepting our partner, and the issue of comparison becomes less significant. For instance, we stop considering whether the person is the best possible partner, but rather whether the partner is suitable for us. Hence, the issue of uniqueness, rather than comparison, is most central in this circumstance. Romantic love is accepting the partner as he or she is while trying to bring out the best in each other. No one can always achieve the highest grades. However, each of us is better when not subject to constant testing or comparison (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).
Iddo Landau, in Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World (2017), discerns two central approaches to life: (1) the desire to be the best, and (2) the desire to improve. Landau criticizes the first approach, claiming individuals are so preoccupied with searching for perfection that they neglect to notice and consequently find satisfaction in the good. He praises the second approach, which acknowledges meaningful development in life.
Landau’s view can be applied to the romantic realm, in discerning two meanings of a perfect partner: (1) a flawless one, and (2) a most suitable one. The search for the flawless partner is an exercise in utter futility. Looking for the most suitable person in the given circumstances, with whom you can build a “perfect” intimate connection, may yield a flourishing and harmonious partnership. In the first instance, the comparative concern is central; in the second, it is insignificant. A relentless searching for the best can prevent lovers from being satisfied with their own lot and can pose an ongoing threat to enduring love.
Comparison in open relationships
“She says it’s really not very flattering to her that the women who fall in love with her husband are so uncommonly second-rate.” —W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
"My wife does not want my lover to be superior so that she isn’t a threat to her. However, she does not want the lover to be far inferior to her as this somehow belittles her.” —A polyamorous husband (cited in Carmi & Sade-Saadon, 2020).
Constant comparison produces jealousy, envy, and dissatisfaction in romantic relationships. Are these poisonous comparisons more common in open relationships, such as polyamory, than in monogamous relationships? In order to answer, we must consider two conflicting points. On the one hand, there are more circumstances within open relationships in which people can compare themselves with others (mainly, the additional partners). Conversely, open relationships necessitate a greater emotional acceptance of additional partners, which should decrease the primary partner’s negative emotions towards them. In monogamous relationships, a partner’s additional lovers often give rise to negative emotions.
In their new moving book, Relationship Wide Open (2020), Zohar Carmi and Liat Sade-Saadon provide dozens of fascinating interviews with those in polyamorous and other kinds of open relationships, who openly and sincerely reveal their hesitations as well as the advantages and difficulties of such relationships. Here, I put forward some citations from the interviewees, where comparison becomes an issue.
- “When you sleep with me, do you think about her?” —Anat asking her partner, Yoav, about his additional partner.
- “I had fears that my wife Tali would leave me. I never said the words, ‘I fear that you will leave me for someone else,’ but I did fear it. I may be more sensitive, more conscious, more accepting, more considerate. However, I cannot be taller, more muscular, or have a bigger c*ck.” —Amit, the husband of Tali.
- “He may be more handsome than me, wiser or even better in bed than me. But no one is more Itamar than me! What is most important is that I am the most Itamar.” —Itamar to his partner, Chen, on her primary partner.
- “The first time that Itamar met a woman who, like me, was a secondary partner, I almost ran away. I did not know what to do with it as I felt that I had nothing more to give him that he did not get from me.” —Chen on Itamar, her secondary partner
- “The day that Daphna, my wife, dates someone similar to me in many ways, who shares things like age, marital status, being in an open relationship, appearance, or if they have a superb bond, I will become jealous. If you have chosen an open marriage, then why choose someone who occupies the same territory? Take someone different.” —Omer, the husband of Daphna
- “Orit, my additional partner, is the perfect woman. She looks after me, cooks for me, and takes care of me. She is everything that Galit, my wife, is not. I love both of them very much. Galit is the love of my life, although it is quite difficult to be married to her. She cannot take care of anything practical and I feel that she does not see me at all—neither our kids nor herself. She is detached.” —Ilan on his wife, Galit, and his additional partner, Orit.
The above citations indicate that issues of comparison are common in open relationships. Comparison is also central in compersion, i.e., deriving joy from your partner’s happiness with another lover. Indeed, differences between the spouse and the lover reduce the value of comparison and protect self-esteem, where compersion is consequently more likely to emerge. Thus, if the lover differs from the spouse in features such as age, appearance, temperament, or occupation, compersion is more likely to occur in both partners.
Issues of comparison are more common in polyamory, as it is natural to compare yourself with your spouse’s additional partner. However, in polyamory, partners are required to give this comparison less weight. Those who are able to minimalize its effect have greater chances of surviving the prevailing comparisons. Less serious consideration of being compared to others also decreases hostile jealousy in monogamous relationships.
Harmless comparisons and jealousy
“He that is not jealous, is not in love." —Saint Augustine
Comparison, as well as jealousy and envy, expresses human sensitivity; hence eliminating them makes us less human and less sensitive. Does romantic love necessarily involve jealousy? A more precise formulation to Augustine’s claim is that romantic love involves the possibility of jealousy. An optimal behavior is one that considerably reduces the weight of jealousy (and envy), making it a minor experience. For this reason, it is common for lovers to try and provoke feelings of slight jealousy in their partner, in order to receive more attention from them. While constant comparison and jealousy can destroy any given relationship, a moderate form of these emotions can nurture warm loving relationships.
This post is based on my recent book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Carmi, Z. & Sade-Saadon, L. (2020). Relationship wide open (Hebrew).
Landau, I. (2017). Finding meaning in an imperfect world. Oxford University Press.