When you see a happy couple walk down the street, do you feel a rush of resentment? Do such public displays of affection get on your nerves?
Before we consider the cause of your resentment, consider this parable I share in my therapy groups that focus on developing healthy relationships. It's about a bird stuck in a cage:
Once upon a time there was a bird whose cage was in a quiet, shadowy room, the only room the bird has ever known.
Then one day the bird's owner, while doing some much needed house cleaning, decides to move the cage outside.
For the first time the bird sees other birds flying free. The bird watches them dive through the air, sing and play, wrestle in trees, coo and peck one another. The caged bird immediately feels resentful:
“Those birds should be in cages.”
The bird tries to ignore them but finds everything about them vexing.
“How shallow and irresponsible they are!"
Even their lovely singing is torturous to the bird.
“I wish they would stop making that noise!”
Finally, after a long day of cleaning, the owner returns the bird to the dark, shadowy room.
The bird sighs with relief; never questioning the bars or considering the possibility of a life beyond the cage.
When I share this story in group, members always respond incredulously:
- “The bird doesn’t know any better.”
- “He didn’t chose to live in a cage.”
- “He has no options. It’s not his fault.”
True, there are times in our lives when we all have cages: schools, jobs, even our family can sometimes feel like a form of imprisonment. But after we move out into the world, the cages we take with us are of our own making—and the material we use for the bars is fear.
When fear holds us back, we lose passion for life. We bypass the unknown for the familiar, avoid taking chances, stop exploring new activities or pursuing new dreams. Like the caged bird, we may feel safe, but are we really living? (See "How Group Therapy Can Empty Your Basket of Troubles.")
Each time we vanish into lackluster routines, settle for unfulfilling jobs or unsatisfying relationships, or abandon our dreams, our cage grows smaller. Rather than reflect on our choices, attitudes, or consider alternatives, we hunt for scapegoats. In this way, happy people are always targets for the miserable.
Here are a few confessions I’ve heard in group therapy sessions:
- “I hate seeing couples holding hands and smiling.”
- “When I see couples kissing in the park, I want to kick them.”
- “I can’t stand whenever my friend tells me how much she loves her boyfriend.”
Yes, misery loves company, but why do some people resent happy couples so vehemently? Among the top reasons I’ve observed are:
- Happy couples represent intimacy that is missing from your life.
- Happy couples put you in touch with yearning for a healthy relationship.
- Happy couples awaken feelings of loneliness.
Though we may gather comfort from judging others, it is a bitter pleasure that never lasts. After nearly 25 years leading therapy groups focused on building healthy relationships, I can tell you this: No one stumbles into a happy relationship without working on themselves. Happiness is something you bring into a relationship, not something bestowed on you by others.
The key is to build a core state of happiness in your life first. It is a painstaking journey, filled with peaks and valleys, but, in the end, only those committed to ongoing growth and self-improvement can savor loving relationships that last. (See "3 Ways Group Therapy is Better than Individual Therapy.")
So next time you find yourself resenting a happy couple, remember the caged bird. Then, push aside your resentment and ask yourself, “How can I get some of that?”