Kathy planned a wonderful vacation for her 39th birthday in which she whisked away her 12-year-old daughter, Libby, to meet their best friends, Hally and daughter, Brooke. Living far from each other, the two women chose a mid-point city to rendezvous, anticipating a week of shopping, theater, restaurants, and intense "girl time." The week sounded heavenly.
As the two friends caught up each other on family news, Kathy found herself quietly comparing her life to Hally's. Kathy's life seemed less wonderful, her husband less adoring, her children less accomplished. "The comparisons started so subtly," confides Kathy. "Hally's husband had left notes in her suitcase and called her frequently. My husband didn't even call on my birthday. I started to feel he was neglectful."
Then Kathy started to compare her daughter, Libby, to Brooke. "Brooke was so interested in the art museums we visited," Kathy says. "She loves theater and threw herself into lively conversations about each play we saw. But Libby was interested only in shopping."
Their last day was Sunday, so the four ladies attended a church Kathy had heard about. The message that week? "The sin of comparing!" Kathy says. "I felt God was talking directly to me. Finally, I prayed, 'God, I want to see my family for the wonderful people they are and appreciate their uniqueness. I know you created them and they're exactly whom you made them to be. But I struggle with whom I think they should be. Please help me appreciate the things I have.'"
What's the big deal?
Can anything good come out of comparing yourself to another? Yes, insists Dr. Laura Schlessinger in her book The Ten Commandments: "When you look upon someone with respect for what they are or do, you can want to be like that person. You can feel inspired, motivated, and elevated by their example to demonstrate compassion, discipline, piety, courage, effort, persistence, sensitivity, charity, and a search for knowledge. In other words, you can and should envy the goodness of others by becoming like them."
Yet Kathy didn't use her comparisons in a positive way. Instead she turned it into envy—a feeling of discontent and resentment brought about by the desire to possess something that wasn't hers. The Bible warns us repeatedly of the power of envy. God thought it was so important he listed it as one of the Ten Commandments: "Do not covet"—a prohibition about what goes on in our minds.
Comparing and coveting aren't passive feelings. If unchecked, they can hurt us. Envy can lead to a deep dissatisfaction, insists psychologist Maria Nemeth. This dissatisfaction can, in turn, lead to a depressing, debilitating cycle of feeling deprived and angry. A pattern of comparing and coveting can take root in our thinking and become sinful. The Bible tells us to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). Clearly, God's concerned with our thoughts. But what's at stake when we indulge our propensity to compare?
The great distortion
Comparisons often distort our perceptions. My friend Dana often compares her husband, Chris, to his brother, Peter. "There was a time when I thought I married the wrong brother," says Dana. "Peter's exciting and fun and creative, whereas Chris can be steady but boring. Fortunately, my sister-in-law and I are close friends so she tells me the flip side of living with Peter. He creates stress and chaos with his energetic personality, and she's the one who 'sweeps up' behind him. His love for risk and excitement drives her crazy. It helps me remember to appreciate Chris and avoid that self-destructive cycle of unrealistic expectations."
Remember, things aren't always what they seem. In fact, they rarely are.
Linda imagined marriage to be a union of soulmates. Her husband, Tim, has many wonderful qualities, but weak relational skills; so loving and accepting him for who he is, and not for who she wishes he were, is her greatest challenge.
After 20 years, Linda felt like giving up on her marriage—and just at that point, along came a man blessed with gifts in areas Tim lacks—their pastor. "He was gifted in communication and I felt a real connection with him," Linda says. "Soon I found myself looking for ways to spend more time with him, joining committees to be near him, dropping by events where I knew he'd be. I became preoccupied with our pastor, which caused my frustration with Tim to grow exponentially. Without even being aware of it, I started to have an 'affair of the heart'—something I never dreamed I'd be capable of. Finally God convicted me of what I was doing and how my thoughts were hurting my relationship with Tim and with God. I confessed my thoughts to Tim and though we were able to work though it, we ended up leaving the church. Even though this emotional affair never progressed into adultery, I knew it could, given the right circumstances. And it all started with how I compared my husband to another man."
Focus on the fix
My husband, Steve, and I had lived overseas for four years and recently returned to our home in the San Francisco Bay area. While away, we missed the Dot-Com Boom, but evidence of over-the-top extravagance was everywhere. Our little country town used to have horses, cows, and red-winged blackbirds in open spaces; those fields now host absurdly large houses and luxury cars. One acquaintance (living in one of those new houses) toured our home and exclaimed, "How will you ever raise four kids in such a little house?"
Grrrr. I felt defensive about our modest home, annoyed with my husband, Steve, for petty things, and increasingly hypercritical—even judgmental—of those who live lavish and consumptive lifestyles. In short, part of me was jealous that I wasn't living in one of those houses with the expensive lifestyle.
But as Steve and I reclaimed our home from four years as a rental, in which we repainted rooms, replaced dead plants, and reshuffled furniture to fit the space, I found my attitude changed, too. I began to focus on what I have and began to enjoy and appreciate our home. I noticed aspects of it I'd overlooked, and was surprised to find I became much less critical of others.
That same strategy works in marriage. When I pay attention to areas that need work and improvement, and appreciate what I do have rather than dwelling on what I don't, I find myself enjoying a stronger, healthier marriage. The lesson to me is to take care of what I have, give thanks, and the right attitude will follow.
Suzanne Woods Fisher, an author and contributing editor to Christian Parenting Today, lives with her family in California.
2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.