"If I'm honest, I always compare the worst parts of myself to the best parts of others," my friend, Wendy, said during Bible study years ago. She spoke this profound statement with such humility that I almost didn't glean the pure wisdom it offered. With time its words penetrated the deepest parts of my soul. Wendy shared about comparing the not-so-pleasant aspects of her inner life to the pristine perception she had of other people. Of course, those compared won the competition they didn't even know they were part of. I remember Wendy's words because she brought a voice to the game I played without even being aware of it.
The game goes further than that, though. The deck is shuffled and the cards are dealt when we get together with our girlfriends. As the conversation turns to things our husbands do, we begin looking at our hand, trying to decide if what they're saying trumps what, or who, we have.
"I can't believe Roger put my dry-clean-only blouse in the wash," Judy complains, while everyone else thinks, Roger helps with the laundry? I sure wish my husband did, even if he ruined a few shirts here and there. Without a spoken word, a winner—and therefore a loser—is declared.
The problem with this game is that when the other women get home, they often become agitated with their husbands.
"What did I do?" one husband inquires after his wife, Mary, snaps at him.
"Nothing," she retorts, meaning, "You do nothing." And then she secretly adds in a whisper so quiet she convinces herself that she didn't even think it, "If only you were more like Roger." The irony is Judy is talking to Roger, except she's wishing he were more like Mary's husband.
Determining the winners . . . and the losers
In a day when kids play games where everyone comes out a winner, we find ourselves succumbing to one in which no one wins: the one of comparisons. John Hamel said, "Comparison leads to pride or intimidation." This is true even in our marriages. When we compare our spouse to someone else, we walk away proud of our husband if we decide he is the winner . . . or intimidated, frustrated, and upset if we don't.
Our spouse can feel intimidated if we nominate someone else as the winner. He might not even know we played a game or that he lost, but he'll feel the result all the same. If we aren't careful, we start treating him with contempt and disdain as we wish the parts of him we see behind closed windows were more like the pristine exterior of a friend's spouse.
This game of comparison gets even worse when the only players are the ones inside our homes. We mentally take notes of what we've done lately and hold it side-by-side to our spouse's list. We try figuring out who helped more around the house, who spent more time with the kids as they did their homework, or who is most valuable (which could be calculated umpteen different ways). Sometimes it becomes an issue of who did a better job on a project, or even who is capable of doing better, even if he didn't do a thing.
I find myself at this place when I look at the bathroom after my husband graciously offers to clean it. I see the somewhat shimmery mirror, but I also see the grime that remains on the counters. I could have done better, I think, unwittingly declaring myself victorious in my bathroom-cleaning abilities. So I don my invisible best-toilet-scrubber cape—that crowning glory I could care less about—yet fought to get at the expense of my husband's self-esteem.
Are we doomed to go to bed with capes around our shoulders and daggers in our hearts? Absolutely not! The greatest remedy to the comparison game is gratitude. The change in perspective is so minor we might not even realize its importance, but its effects can be life-long (and life-giving!). Instead of judging who can wipe down counters better, we can train ourselves to get in the habit of simply thanking our spouses for what they do and who they are.
I know a husband who jots his wife a note on a heart-shaped piece of paper every morning, thanking her for the way she raises the kids and for helping around the house. He sticks it to her thermos and then brings her coffee up to her. (Watch out: Those comparison muscles might be going into overtime! Fight them off and remember that just because someone "wins" in one category doesn't mean everything they do is bliss.) At the end of the day, she puts the note on a cabinet, creating a beautiful collage of love, encouragement, and gratitude.
We don't need little pink sticky notes to mimic this. It can be as simple as remembering to say thank you for working hard to support the family or for washing the dishes (even if we need to go back and redo a few of them). We can write little notes and make a game of hiding them in unique places, like in his toolbox thanking him for keeping the home in running order.
In order to counteract the "I can do better" attitude, I've come to realize there are some chores I truly can do better or enjoy more than my husband. Let me dig in the dirt as I do yard work and I'm a happy girl, but five minutes of pulling weeds and my husband, Allen, is miserable. Most outdoor chores now fall on my plate because they're enjoyable to me, while Allen is in charge of ironing since he knows I would rather get my teeth cleaned than smooth out wrinkles in my shirts.
Just like you can't simultaneously be looking forward and backward, you can't be looking out for what other people do better than your spouse and looking for ways to encourage and motivate him at the same time. By deliberately choosing to look at your spouse in reverence and respect, you'll be moving your relationship forward, but most importantly, you'll stop spoiling your marriage by comparing apples to diamonds.
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Stacy Voss is an author, speaker, and founder of Eyes of Your Heart Ministries. She lives in Colorado.