love as a competitive sport

This post stems from a recent conversation I had with a friend who can be mildly competitive.  (She is reading this and saying “No, I’m not!” but she is, trust me.  It’s okay, though, because I love her anyway for lots of reasons.)

Anyway…

When I was already separated and she was still married, she used to compare my stories of marital angst and frustration and sadness with her own, trying to determine if her situation was better than mine had been — and therefore deserving of  sticking it out — or worse than mine had been — and therefore in need of a divorce lawyer, pronto.  She is not a sneaky person and was honest that she was evaluating her life in this manner, and I indulged her in it even though I couldn’t really understand it.  I still don’t understand it, but, according to my friend, who is now divorced and sharing her story with others, it is common.

But why?

I mean, intellectually I get that people like to compare.  It gives them some sense of what is “normal” in a relationship.  We try to gauge whether our standards are perhaps too high or if we’re being unreasonable or if we’re taking for granted a great person simply because we’re too focused on the fact that he farts and we wish he wouldn’t.  But really, is that how we should be determining our happiness — by some imaginary yardstick that doesn’t account for who we are or what we want or where we are in our life?

Because, the thing is, it really doesn’t matter whether my marriage was better or worse than yours (as measured by some empirical standard that doesn’t exist).  All that matters is whether your relationship makes you happy.  Mine didn’t.  Mine would probably have made some other woman happy — indeed my ex-husband’s girlfriend seems quite content — but it didn’t make me happy.  And really, all that matters is whether the two people involved find the relationship fulfilling and good.  To hell with the rest of the world.

For every friend I have with a marriage I admire, I have at least one with a marriage I couldn’t live in for a week.  But that’s just me.  That very same marriage that I find intolerable might be exactly what she needs.  I have realized that it is completely impossible to compare, in any meaningful way, one relationship to another.  There are simply too many variables at play. What I need out of a relationship may be different from you.  What you find attractive in a man may be different from me.  Our backgrounds and baggage and circumstances — they all inform our definition of a “great relationship.”

Of course there are the extremes at either end of the spectrum:  the drug-addled cheat with the girlfriend who swears he’s a great guy while we all roll our eyes in unison, and the high-school sweethearts whose fairytale ending of love and companionship and respect and support is better than most Hollywood movies.  But those couples whom we can all agree have wonderful or awful relationships tend  to be few and very far between.  More typically, it truly is a matter of opinion.

So back to my original point of people who compare and contrast their relationships to their friends’ like they’re attacking an English Lit exam:  it’s a futile exercise bound to only leave you more confused.  Because there’s no easy answer.  Period.

Let’s say that you play the comparison game and decide that your marriage is actually a lot better than those around you.  Does that mean you should stay in it, even if you have been unhappy?  And if it does mean that, will that “should” suddenly bless you with happiness and contentment in your marriage? Will just knowing that you “should” be happy be enough to make it so?

As for the other result, let’s say that, after hearing your friends’ stories, you determine that your marriage is unsalvageable and you must leave.  Do you expect that analysis to guarantee that you’re making the “correct” choice?  Do you think that equation offers some kind of assurance that this is the best option for you and you’ll be happier on the other side of the divorce divide?

No, of course not.  So why do we bother?  Wouldn’t the time be better spent in quiet contemplation of what we really want and whether our current relationship is meeting those needs and desires?

While I haven’t encountered as much marriage comparison charting as my friend has, I have noticed an interesting variation of this that occurs post-divorce.  In this version of the sport, women compare their new relationships and there’s this subtle competition for who’s in a happier, more stable, more fulfilling relationship.  I understand that many people need that status to validate their choice to leave or to alleviate their pain at being left, but it makes me sad anyway.   Quite often, I feel like I’m back in junior high school, comparing who got the most valentine cards, and the whole exercise feels now, as it did to me then, vaguely pathetic and depressing.

Why do we do this?  (And by “we” I don’t only mean women.  For example, men and rulers go back as long as…. well… as long as men and measuring devices have co-existed.)  But, seriously, what benefit do we really derive from referencing our own happiness or pain or pleasure by another person’s situation or circumstance?  Their story tells us valuable information, to be sure, about them and them alone.  It tells us nothing about our own dreams or desires or needs.

We all want assurances.  Guarantees.  But the simple truth is that we don’t get any.  And the only way to really “win” is to chart a course that is true and right for you.  To hell with the rest of the world.

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