Most people view envy in a negative way. It has been defined as the feeling one has when another person has a superior quality, achievement or possession that you desire or wish for. Identified as “sin” in some faiths, it has been associated with a constellation of feelings including guilt, longing, inferiority, resentment, and even ill will toward the envied person.
Do partners ever envy each other? Aren’t partners supposed to be happy for each other, proud when the other wins the golf tournament, earns the degree, outperforms her peers? Absolutely, and they are. Most couples operate from the perspective that when one wins, both win. No one is envious of their partner when he/she is winning on Jeopardy – they’re thrilled.
On the other hand, if you have ever been in a relationship, it is likely you have felt, heard, or uttered something like:
“It must be nice to keep reading the paper while the kids are dismantling the house.”
“I didn’t have a family like yours that jumped whenever I needed something.”
“How come they come to me with the problems and they come to you to play?”
“I don’t know how you can stick to that diet with all the junk food around.”
“I’m coming back as you in my next life!”
In addition to the frustration, resentment, humor, and even admiration we feel or hear in these comments, maybe there is also some envy and maybe that’s not a bad thing.
In his 2009 research in the Netherlands, Niels Van de Ven differentiates benign envy from malicious envy and finds that benign envy of another is a motivator that improves performance. In the Dutch language, there are two different words for envy, one for malicious envy, which motivates harm to the other, and one for benign envy which motivates one to improve one’s position.
Envy, Self-Reflection, and Mutual Reflection
If we apply this to couple dynamics, benign envy may serve as a point of self-reflection or an opportunity for mutual reflection, collaboration, or guidance.
- Are you really telling him you resent his reading the paper while the kids are dismantling the house or that you wish you could find a way to relax somewhere, sometime the way he does? If you use your envy of him as a point of information for you, maybe the end result is not the subtle put-down of him or tension in the room but the seed of an idea for what you need and deserve: Asking him to watch the kids and the house while you go for the manicure may be a start.
- When you ask her how she can stick to that diet with all the junk food around, it’s not exactly a compliment. If you use your envy of her determination and ask her help as a successful dieter, it might avoid fights and blame about junk food and invite her willing collaboration on food choices that makes success possible for both.
Envy, Validation, and Invitation
- Van de Ven found that often the person feeling envied will act in a way to ward off the negative feelings of being envied. If a couple is aware of this, it can move them from defensiveness or guilt to validation and invitation to share or help the partner. When Jane hears Jack say that he didn’t have a family like hers that jumped whenever she needed it, she can feel his wish and maybe his envy. If she gets defensive about her family, she lets guilt get between them: “It’s not my fault your parents weren’t able to give.” In a sense, it leaves Jack without support again. If instead she validates and invites connection to what they share, there is a different feeling:
“You’re right they were always there – I was lucky, but we didn’t get to pick our parents. What’s great is that we got to pick each other.”
- When Sal hears Carol say that she is coming back as him in her next life, he laughs but it makes him nervous. If he ignores it or acts defensive – “Here we go.What’s wrong now?” – neither partner moves. If he uses it as a point of inquiry and validation, something different may happen:
“Why are you coming back as me…I’m going bald?”
“Because people like you and want to do things for you – including me.”
“I don’t know, I’m not sure about other people – but I do appreciate what you do for me.”
“I probably don’t say it enough and I don’t do enough for you. Do I?”
For most partners the validation does a great deal!
Envy and Admiration
An interesting finding that has relevance for couples is Van de Ven’s report that when a person finds or believes that it is too difficult for them to improve or change to be like the envied person, they switch to admiration, which Van de Ven views as surrender.
Admiration is always a good thing in a relationship. In fact, from a Self Psychology Perspective, it is considered that partners, although mutually independent, provide important self-object roles for each other. They depend on the mirroring or validating of their partner, they twin with and learn from shared commonalities with their partner, and they feel enhanced self-esteem by attachment to a partner they admire.
While admiration is clearly important, it is worth questioning whether partners too often surrender, as Van de Ven suggests, and give up pursuing something for themselves that they admire in their partner. In relationships partners can get locked in or out of roles: She’s the artist, he’s the cook, he knows finance, and she speaks three languages.
Sometimes it takes traumatic events or unexpected life circumstances to push a partner into a role owned by the other. While this can take some adjusting, most couples come to feel mastery and mutual admiration.
Sometimes a partner pushes past the urge to surrender because the other is encouraging them to try – to take the golf lesson although he’s a pro or to begin to jog although she’s a seasoned runner. The benefit is usually experienced on both the personal and relationship levels. There is a new sense of mutuality and interest: They are both talking about the ingredients for the best veal chops. There is an insider appreciation for religion studied by one and known by the other. There are differences discussed- now that both like decorating.
The result of a partner’s striving for what they see and admire in the other is most often stimulating and invigorating for both – of course if he ends up making a better pasta and she wins a photo contest – there just might be a little envy…
If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, take a look at C. Leone’s 2008 article “Couple therapy from the perspective of self psychology and intersubjectivity theory,” which can be found in Psychoanalytic Psychology, 25, 79-98. doi: 10.1037/0736-9722.214.171.124.