Keeping Up With the Joneses Do you and your spouse feel a lot of pressure to keep up with your peers? You might need to stop focusing on the Joneses and take a closer look at yourselves. BY FRANCINE KIZNER
Sometimes keeping up with the Joneses has more to do with finding your own identity.
"Competition isn’t just about keeping up with the Joneses; it’s about becoming a Jones," says Mark Rogers, co-facilitator of Relationship Rich (www.relationshiprich.com), a workshop program for couples. "Couples who get competitive are looking for a sense of identity as a couple. It’s a way to fit in with people you want to be like."
So maybe you’re jealous of the neighbors’ new cars, or you live for the day you’ll be able to beat your older brother and his wife at tennis. By competing with other couples, you’re trying to gain their approval. But you’re also trying to validate yourself and your relationship. "Competing in the game of acquisitions, careers and leisure pursuits lets you know that you’re a player," says Rogers. "You get reassurance that you’re a Jones, just like all the other Joneses."
It’s natural to want to fit in, but it can be a problem if you’re trying to use these external comparisons to define your relationship. When a couple is shaky on who they are, says Rogers, "Some couples find couplehood an ambiguous, unknown territory. They don’t have strong internal convictions about how to live, and they don’t feel certain about their developing relationship. So they don’t turn inside or to each other to get their bearings, they turn to couples they want to be like and play the game of ‘Can we be more like them than they are?’"
Once you’re caught up in trying to outdo your peers, you can completely lose perspective on who you are and why you’re together in the first place. Rogers shares the example of a couple who moved into an affluent neighborhood and wanted to fit in with their neighbors. They started spending beyond their means, and the financial stress of fitting in with their neighbors started causing fights between them. Says Rogers, "It came to a head when the husband bought a big flat-screen TV so the gang could watch the Super Bowl together. The wife ended up spending a couple of days with her sister, then telling her husband she wanted a divorce."
Now, they didn’t get divorced over a TV. It was just the final boiling point. "They over-related to their new peers," says Rogers. "Because they hadn’t developed sufficient maturity as a couple to monitor themselves and manage their communications about finances, they kept making small decisions that had big-time implications."
Ultimately, if you’re putting more emphasis on "us versus them" than "us," you’re setting yourself up for disaster. While you’ll feel gratified for a while by besting other couples, it’s no foundation for your relationship. "When you ‘succeed’ at competing, you might just find yourself feeling that winning leaves you a little hollow at the core," says Rogers. "You’ve got to do your own growing, both as people and as a couple, to feel solid in who you are."
While some competition and comparison is natural and healthy, you don’t have to be like everyone else. In fact, you shouldn’t try to be like everyone else. Says Rogers, "Bad news: You can’t compete your way to wisdom, to maturity, to confident selfhood or soul-mated love. Good news: Neither can the Joneses."