How to End Relationship Envy for Good

By Lauren Hall
April 12, 2024
Woman alone and melancholy

My family dances together regularly. Cooking dinner? We’re jamming to Usher or Queen. Have twenty minutes to spare before bathtime? We’re grooving around the house to Lecrae or Justin Bieber. It’s a holiday? You can bet at least half of my 32-member family is gathered in the kitchen, singing and moving to yacht rock or 2000s pop.

A few years ago, my sister posted a video of one of our dance fests on social media. The next day, I received a long text from someone sharing how they wished their family could be more like my family… having fun together, laughing, dancing, and making memories. At first, I felt sad for this person. They clearly had a desire for a family environment they had never been able to experience before. Then, I realized they were making an assumption based on one 15-second video. They didn’t see the years of heartache and loss my family navigated through, the arguments we’ve had over politics, religion and parenting, or the moments of frustration and miscommunication that inevitably led to heated conversations and boundaries. It’s true we have fun together, but there’s also a long list of challenges and trials we’ve endured.

Relationship envy is a tricky yet common issue to navigate.

From the gorgeous married couple who travels the world to the family who dances in the kitchen, social media and misplaced assumptions can create a deep-seated game of comparison.

Here’s a truth to remember: Seeing a moment doesn’t reveal the full picture.

In other words, seeing a husband and wife who are caring, considerate, and affectionate towards each other at a dinner party doesn’t mean they haven’t had their fair share of ups and downs. Study after study reveals couples who stick together through hard seasons will inevitably come out stronger and more connected on the other side. Still, we experience relationship envy because we so desperately desire a deep connection with those we love. So often, we don’t know how to build that connection. Then when we see snapshots of others holding hands, laughing, dancing, etc., we assume their relationship is amazing and ours are lacking in some way.

More than eight in ten U.S. adults (83%) say spending time with family provides them a great deal or quite a bit of meaning and fulfillment, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2022. However, a similar survey concluded that Americans only see extended family once a year, typically around a holiday. Likewise, a different survey of 6,000 married couples revealed that 90% of couples enjoy spending time together and find it beneficial for their relationship, but they only go on dates an average of 3 times per year.

What if relationship envy isn’t bred from a lack in our own relationships, but misplaced priorities?

If we desire to have closer, more connected, and “fun” relationships, we have to invest our time, energy, and resources into making those things happen. You can’t enjoy life together if you don’t spend time together. The more time and energy you give to the people you care about, the more memories and experiences you’ll share with them – good and bad.

Likewise, taking the “grass is always greener” approach limits your capacity to see and expand on the positives in your relationships.

Justin Buckingham, a psychology professor at Towson University, and the researcher Lavonia Smith LeBeau developed the “relationship social comparison scale.” They found that people who frequently compared their relationships to others were more likely to experience “low relationship satisfaction, feelings of commitment, and feelings of intimacy.” On a larger scale, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called this “positional suffering,” or the notion that our pain is created not so much by what we have, but by what we have in relation to others. Practicing envy creates feelings of pain, doubt, and dissatisfaction.

What’s the antidote to envy?

Practicing gratitude and self-awareness. Being thankful for what you do have instead of focusing on what you don’t will shift your mindset and point of view over time. Self-awareness allows you to focus on what you do have control over instead of what you can’t control.

To my friend who longs for her family to dance in the kitchen: turn on the music and let loose. If no one joins you, so be it. You can’t control what your family members do or don’t do, but you can be the one to start something new. You can choose to focus on the things your family does to enjoy each other’s company: telling stories, reading, sharing life, eating meals – there’s no right or wrong way to be together. Prioritizing your own relationships will give you less time and capacity to envy others.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

Photo by Raychan on Unsplash

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