Comparison. Few things threaten the health and well-being of a marriage like comparison between spouses. It seems every couple goes through this like it's some evil right of passage in marriage. Unfortunately, many couples get stuck in a pattern of constantly comparing themselves with their spouse, creating years of pain, resentment and distance.
Here's how comparison works. As the natural complexity of life grows, so does the stress. Inevitably something doesn't get done. Some expectation goes unmet. And the battle ensues. It usually goes something like this...
Husband - "I work hard all day, and I just want to know what's for dinner. Is that too much to ask?!"
Wife - "YOU work hard! What do you think I do?!"
Husband - "I'm not sure. Obviously, you're not cooking dinner!"
Wife - "Give me a break. You go to work all day and get to do whatever you want while I'm here watching kids - I NEVER get a minute to myself!"
Husband - "You have no idea the kind of pressure I have at work. Then I come home and HELP you with the kids - no one helps me with my work!"
Wife - "You come home and watch TV is what you do. You don't help with the kids - I'm the one making lunches, doing laundry, running carpool, helping with homework and doing all the shopping."
Husband - "Where do you think all that money comes from to shop with? I'm the one supporting our family, is it so hard for you to see that?"
Wife - "Like you ever notice what I do! All you do is complain when you don't get your precious dinner when you walk in the door - I'm not your slave!"
I better stop before they say something they might regret! :)
Sound familiar? This is just one example of countless arguments we have in marriage where comparison wreaks havoc. Your situation may vary in detail. Maybe both of you work outside the home, adding another layer of complexity. Maybe you have a wide age gap among your children, pulling you in different directions. Maybe you have an undercurrent of financial stress that complicates everything. In every case, you find the comparison war.
I have coached many couples in the middle of the comparison war. The reality is, no one can with this war. If the comparison war is going to end in your marriage, you will have to take some radical steps...
1. Normalize complexity. Life has a way of growing more and more complex. Complexity leads to stress. Stress needs an outlet. When you feel stress, it is time to proactively talk about it together. Normalize the fact that you are running in too many directions. Admit you have too much going on. Share the sources of stress with your spouse without blaming them for it. One of the primary reasons we fight with our spouse is to make them understand where we're coming from, to feel our pain. The problem is, we end up accusing them and putting them on the defensive. Remember, life is complex, and we must be able to accept that reality without placing blame.
2. Tackle problems together. Using the illustration above, I would tell this couple to schedule a time to meet when they can have some uninterrupted conversation. Identify what expectations are not being met with the understanding that you will tackle them together. You may have to write them down. So, with our pretend couple, the wife is receiving all the blame for the lack of dinner on the table. Instead, the couple should identify the complexity that surrounds the preparation of dinner, like the kids going crazy after school, the growing laundry demands and attempts to get homework done together. By recognizing the complexities, you can devise a plan TOGETHER to accomplish the end goal. For instance, the couple could start weekly meal-planning so the shopping and prep is pre-determined. The wife may be able to set out everything for dinner, and the husband may be able to cook dinner when he arrives home. This allows the wife to keep the laundry moving and help the kids with homework. In your case, you may discover that one or more extra curricular activities need to be stopped. You may consider preparing meals on the weekend that require little more than reheating. Consider your options creatively and work together!
3. Validate one another. Everyone wants to be validated. In a marriage, validation is the one thing everyone wants but hesitates to give. Husbands, admit it, your wife ABSOLUTELY works every bit as hard as you, and you would not want to have her job! Wives, admit it, your husband ABSOLUTELY works every bit as hard as you and you would not want his job. Both of you contribute to the well being of your marriage and family. Validate whenever possible. Recognize the way your spouse adds value to your lives. Compliment your spouse when you see them handling extra responsibilities either at home or on the job.
4. Give your best. Always give 100% in your area of contribution to your marriage and family. Men, don't dawdle getting out of the office - when work is over for the day, hurry home and be a contributor. Wives, if you work in the home, be diligent. Set high expectations for your work at home. When you give your best, it will result in building trust and confidence between the two of you. If you know you aren't giving your best, then make a change and start giving your best to your marriage NOW.
Practice these steps faithfully and you will see an end to the comparison war.
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