The digital information age has its upsides, but like most anything, it creates some problems. We are constantly bombarded with information. This comes through our televisions, streaming services, social media, email inboxes, etc. Imagine 100 years ago, before television, when your sources of information were limited to the newspaper and the stories from your neighbors, family, or friends. Go even further back another 100 years. You may be working the family farm, and your information is limited to those in your household, the occasional letter/telegram, or a visit from a friend or family member.
The rapid rise of the flow of information has bombarded us with details, insights, facts, figures, and probably too much misinformation. It becomes hard to sort and retain the information and separate truth from fiction.
This information onslaught impacts our marriages. We are offered any number of blogs (this being one), articles, and videos to help. There is no limit to the tabloid offerings to tell us the latest about celebrity and royal marriages. Our social media feeds let us know what our family, friends, and acquaintances are doing in their marital bliss (or blues). All this data on all these marriages can lead us into the dangerous territory of comparison.
- Why do they get to go to the Bahamas?
- How did their kid make the varsity team?
- At least we are not struggling, fighting, or having their problems.
- One expert gives this advice, while another shares the exact opposite opinion. Which one is right?
You get the idea. Whether we say these comparisons out loud or speak them in our minds, the large amounts of data we have about others opens this door too quickly. Can you imagine 200 years ago knowing nothing about the royals or your 500 friends on Facebook? All you would have known is those in your immediate circle. In terms of marriage, you may have had a significant awareness of the goings on in your marriage and one to two other marriages. This would have severely limited the data pool for comparison.
So what is it about the comparison to other marriages that would damage my own? It erodes commitment and can lead to broken trust.
Bluma Zeigarnik was a young psychologist in 1922. One day she was eating in a Vienna cafe when she observed an interesting phenomenon. Wait staff had excellent memory recall for the orders of various tables they served. Still, once the orders to any table were fulfilled, they could no longer accurately recall the information about the orders. These observations and future studies led to the concept named after her – Zeigarnik Effect. It is that we have better recall for uncompleted tasks/events than those tasks/events that we have finished or processed. Our memory recall can be up to 90% higher for unfinished business.
When you are overloaded with too much information or tidbits of information you cannot process, you tend to hold onto those things. And Dr. Gottman, in his research with couples, found it was the negative tidbits that we kept in the front of our minds. This is how comparison erodes the connections and commitments in your marriage.
Like all marriages, yours deals with conflicts and disconnections. And if no consistent repair is made to those ruptures, you are open to the impacts of comparison. In all the flow of information in your world, you start to notice what you don’t have, how your marriage feels distant and disappointing compared to others. You wish you had their trips, their money, their happiness. You have no space to process these feelings of discontent or grief properly. The people you use for comparison are not readily available to process, and talking to them about these feelings would be inappropriate. Isolation and disconnection increase, and the list of irritations and hurts in the marriage grows. This only makes the gap between the reality of the marriage and the greener grass outside the marriage grow. At this point, the real danger exists in considering alternatives outside the marriage.
- Maybe my spouse is not my “true love.”
- I could be happier on my own.
- My friend/coworker cares about me more than my spouse.
- I feel more attracted to my neighbor than my spouse.
The list could go on, but if we start to act on any of these thoughts, we open the door to broken trust in the marriage. The foundations of commitment become shaky, and our choices to act cut deep wounds of betrayal. This all starts with comparison.
The solution to comparison is proactive prevention. All marriages deal with injuries and disconnections, but healthy couples consistently repair those hurts. The diligent effort to minimize the impacts of minor injuries offers a protective safe space to process hurts before the dangers of comparison can enter the marriage. These preventative efforts help maintain a strong commitment and trust in the union. So as information enters our world that could be used for comparison, it can be easily dismissed or processed with our spouse because there is confidence and safety in the marriage. Here are a few ideas to help consistently repair and avoid the dangers of comparison.
- Cherish your partner – It is essential to validate, compliment, and honor the best parts of your spouse. Though it can be easy to fall into noticing and remembering the things that annoy you, you must be consistently focused on what you value. Share those compliments. There needs to be a 5 to 1 ratio of compliments to complaints in your marriage. We can all do better in this area.
- Choose gratitude – Make a list of things to be thankful for each day in your marriage. Share at least one thing you are grateful for daily with your spouse.
- Listen with empathy and understanding – When your spouse shares strong feelings or complaints, it can often be upsetting and escalating. Maintain a space of calm to truly hear your spouse and choose to validate their experience and feelings before offering any advice or suggestions. Haim Ginott, a psychologist, once said, “…advice is always more effective when words of understanding precede words of advice.” And often, words of advice are unnecessary.
- Limit your intake of information – The information age is here to stay. But we can set boundaries on media and technology to limit the flow of information into our minds.
These are a few strategies to help avoid the dangers of comparison and hopefully protect the essential ingredients of commitment and trust in your marriage.