The Moment I Finally Learned To Stop Comparing My Marriage With Anyone Else’s
I came to understand it’s OK when I’m anxious about my relationship at the same moment someone else is living their best life.
I know the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence, yet what about when it’s stunningly verdant in contrast to your own? Comparison is the thief of joy, but mastering the art of choosing not to compare has taken me decades. The circuitous process was sped up one night when my husband and I joined some friends at their home for dinner, in the before times — when we weren’t self-isolating.
Our headlights flooded their courtyard — heralding our arrival and rendering it too late to turn back — as we parked next to a car we didn’t recognize. It was supposed to have been just the four of us; we’d received no heads-up that we’d actually be six.
On good days, I’m slow to warm up — more comfortable diving deep with old friends than making small talk with strangers. But merely months into recovering from my husband’s confession of infidelity 20 years into our marriage, I was scarcely ready to mix in again with even close friends and family. Before the pandemic hit, I was isolating when isolating wasn’t even cool.
I felt blindsided when I walked into our friends’ home and the other couple they’d invited jovially introduced themselves. I listened politely to their offered bios that highlighted their newly empty nest status and resigned myself to an entirely different kind of evening than I’d envisioned — a low-key gathering I’d barely managed to drag myself out of the house for. But the new couple made it difficult to relax and enjoy myself. They were just so damn schmoopie — practically dripping with gooey adoration for each other. While I was so on edge, raw and overly sensitive, their vibe felt claustrophobic.
The husband half of the new-to-us couple broke the ice by asking, “Why don’t we each say which exotic locale we’d like to next travel to next?” I heard the others begin to call out places like Ibiza — and the rest are foggy because I couldn’t hear them over the rush of my irritation. I merely wanted to be able to travel to a safe place in my head, free of heartache and uncertainty about my marriage.
My husband lost his career as a result of his indiscretion with a coworker, and at that moment we were worried about how we would continue to pay our bills and fill our refrigerator, afford to help our kids with college, and actually retire someday. So I couldn’t dream about bucket-list travel destinations right then.
The wife half of the new couple beamed as she explained how they were making the most of their empty nest and refocusing on their marriage. They were taking turns choosing an activity or hobby to introduce each other to and explore together for an entire month before moving on to another. They’d just ended a month of practicing yoga and had begun to learn fly-fishing. Their grass and my envy were blinding shades of green.
My own neglected grass was at least beginning to take on a healthier hue — as I’d decided that though I couldn’t stay in my current marriage, I could try to start a brand new one with my husband. But even though couples therapy was helping us learn to better love each other, we were still far-flung from thriving.
Sometimes, you can’t help but notice the difference between your marriage and another’s, even when you had no intention of comparing. Unfavorable comparisons can leap out at you, looming so large and in your face you can’t help but recognize how lamely yours measures up. The new couple was too much, and I couldn’t wait to leave and never lay eyes or ears on them again. They were just too happy, too in the zone, too nestled in for a sweet, welcome new phase of their marriage — while my husband and I struggled to even find the off-ramp to the lane they were traveling in.
Sure, the couple could’ve served as inspiration, an example of an admirable end goal. I might’ve decided to find them charming. But an appreciative headspace wasn’t attainable for me.
Months later, the new couple’s orbit crossed our own again when we heard through friends in common that one of their children had taken their own life. At that precise moment, I finally learned to quit comparing my marriage — or my family, or my life — with anyone else’s. The startling juxtaposition of the couple dealing with the unthinkable loss of a child and the seemingly amazing place their marriage and family life had been in when we met stopped me cold, in my icy-hearted tracks. In hearing of their unfathomable pain, empathy kicked in and overrode all, finally allowing me to take it to heart that even when greener grass is flourishing right beside my own drought-ridden patch, the difference is often an illusion. Or merely temporary. For climate changes can occur, recoloring the fickle blades at any moment.
I felt ashamed of how I’d loathed the couple and resented their happiness the night we met. Learning of their loss convicted me of the bitter way I’d reacted to them, teaching me it feels better to choose to be happy for others who’re able to be happy in the moment — even if I can’t claim happiness, too.
In bearing witness to the couple’s high and low points, I came to understand it’s OK when I’m anxious or uncertain about my marriage or my kids at the same moment someone else is living their best life. Opposing circumstances are neither condemnation nor elevation of either experience.
I’d rather honor all stories than judge them or compare them with my own, only to end up feeling either falsely superior or inferior. The new-to-us couple I now see as so precious and so like the rest of us — a couple I pray can reclaim the state of happiness I met them in — taught me how.