Follow your heart

How to Save Your Relationship From the Social Media Comparison Trap

Even picture-perfect pairs go through rough patches.
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When you envision your “dream” couple, there’s a chance your own relationship (if you’re in one) isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Maybe you have heart eyes for one of those supercute celebrity pairs with the seemingly perfect house, perfect kids, and perfect life (ahem, Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds)—or an überwealthy influencer who isn’t shy to show off extravagant and romantic getaways with their spouse. Heck, even the high school sweethearts from your hometown might be your #relationshipgoals.

Most partnered-up people (yes, even those with healthy and stable connections) fantasize, perhaps a little more than they should, about what could be improved or fixed in their relationship, Andrea Battiola, EdS, LPC, a sex therapist and counselor at Peak Couples and Sex Therapy in Washington, DC, tells SELF. “We don’t even know whether what others portray online is authentic or not, but it’s hard to resist questioning yourself and thinking, Oh, what’s wrong with us since we don’t have that?” Battiola says. Maybe if your partner was hotter or richer, or left you flirty notes or gushed about you on their feed, you wouldn’t feel like you’re missing out, right?

The very human (and research-backed) tendency to socially compare and contrast may lead us to assume that other people are having better sex, going on fancier dates, or dealing with less conflict, but longing for the “perfect” relationship can end up sabotaging the one right in front of you, Battiola adds. Sure, you and your boo may not be an enviable match 24/7, but fighting, bickering, and even getting sick of each other occasionally is not only normal but, more importantly, realistic, Battiola says.

If you often notice couple envy bubbling up when you’re scrolling through social media, consider taking this practical advice to stop yourself from falling into the oh-so-tempting comparison trap.

First, think about where your relationship insecurity is coming from.

“It’s not you, it’s me.” A cliché, we know, but sometimes your dissatisfaction with the relationship isn’t about the relationship at all. It may ultimately be about you and your own insecurities, Sara Nasserzadeh, PhD, a social psychologist based in Los Angeles, tells SELF.

For example, is the problem really that you haven’t posted enough cute pics together? Or is it stemming from your desire to impress your followers? Do you actually want to move in together all of a sudden, or are you feeling pressured to measure up to all your cohabitating friends?

“When we’re not happy with ourselves or satisfied with where we are in life, we tend to project that into our partnerships, so an important first step is to evaluate whether the relationship is really what’s making you feel empty,” Dr. Nasserzadeh says. If you truly do feel like you’re missing something, you can address that directly (more to come on that). But if you establish that the issue is actually, um, you, then you can focus on building self-confidence—on your own or with a therapist—and learning to accept who and where you are in life, which will make you less inclined to seek validation or approval from others, she adds.

Remind yourself that you don’t know what happens behind closed doors.

First, no relationship is perfect. Don’t let money or facial symmetry fool you: Not even the super attractive, wealthy, and smiley couples you see on social media are in a constant state of bliss. Think about it: Do you post videos of your arguments, say, or pics of your partner’s messy kitchen habits on your Instagram? We’re guessing not—you’re probably only sharing cute and cuddly selfies or candids from your summer vacation. You know, the happy moments.

“You never truly know the ins and outs of another relationship if you’re not in it,” Dr. Nasserzedah says. Yes, this applies to your besties too: Even if you’ve hung out with your pal and their significant other on numerous occasions, you likely still don’t know the full scope of their private problems. That’s why it’s not super healthy—or helpful—to base your worth on an assumption about other people, Dr. Nasserzadeh says.

So the next time you start romanticizing someone else’s, well, romance, try becoming a little more mindful by challenging these thoughts, Battiola suggests. An example: A coworker’s gushy Bora Bora babymoon posts have you thinking their relationship must be paradise, too. Instead of just accepting that thought as a fact, you can give yourself a reality check and reframe it as, “Okay, I’m not seeing everything. Traveling can be pretty stressful and exhausting, and they’re probably not showing us the stuff that inevitably went wrong.”

Or maybe you’re jealous of the fact that your friend and their new fling seem to have all the same interests: In that case, bear in mind that hey, they may enjoy watching sports and cooking elaborate meals together, but there are probably plenty of things they do separately too. The point isn’t to mentally tear others down, but simply to keep in mind that, as glowing as they may be in their anniversary compilations, they’re as human and flawed as the rest of us.

Be intentional about appreciating what you do have.

Instead of chasing fantasies (that may not even fulfill you IRL, by the way), remember why you’re dating your person in the first place—and what exactly you’re grateful for in the relationship. Having a partner who cooks, cleans, shops with you, and buys you designer clothes, say, might sound like a dream, but are those things really so necessary for a happy, healthy dynamic? Just because they’re lacking in some areas, doesn’t mean they’re not a great match for you overall.

“When you get too caught up in comparing your relationship to others, you’re likely to focus on what you don't have, so it’s especially important to be thoughtful about appreciating what you do,” Battiola says. Aside from the more obvious gratitude practices (like writing a list of all the things you love about your partner), reminding yourself of their best qualities can be as simple as giving them compliments or spending quality time together. For example, you might make a point to say, “I love that you made the time to get dinner tonight at our favorite restaurant” or “Nobody else knows me as well as you or listens to my rants without judging me.”

Another way to practice appreciating what you have is to go on what Battiola calls an “awe walk,” which is pretty much what it sounds like: “Go outside with your partner, whether it’s a new place or a familiar spot, and really notice your surroundings together and wonder about the things around you,” she recommends. This, she says, can not only push you to get out of your head (and step away from your feed), but it can also help you meaningfully connect with your partner and cultivate a more positive attitude when it comes to your life and your bond.

Figure out what really matters to you and separate it from the superficial stuff.

Comparing yourself to others in and of itself isn’t bad. Again, it’s a fundamental human tendency, and it can sometimes help us become more self-aware. By drawing parallels with other partnerships, you may realize you’ve outgrown yours, say, or that your priorities have changed. But “comparison is the thief of joy” is a saying for a reason: If you start fixating on the what-ifs—or the I-wishes or the why-don’ts—you’re setting yourself up for dissatisfaction (where there might not have been any in the first place), Jenni Skyler, PhD, LMFT, sex therapist and director of the Intimacy Institute in Boulder, Colorado, tells SELF.

“Wanting is natural, and we experience this in wanting what we can’t have and wanting things other people have that might be superfluous or superficial,” Dr. Skyler says. “For example, you might suddenly desire a nicer car just because your married neighbors upgraded theirs.” Or perhaps you’re measuring your relationship against pop-culture-driven ideas of what true love looks like.

Your current romance will probably be lacking in some aspects, but is it really a nonnegotiable for your partner to have the same eye for fashion as you, say, or to pack on the PDA like they’re acting out your favorite rom-com? Determining what’s actually important to you can keep you from dwelling on the relatively inconsequential things, Dr. Skyler says.

Unfollow any accounts that make you feel less than.

You can’t exactly avoid close friends just because you envy their relationships. But when it comes to Instagram influencers (a.k.a. complete strangers on the internet) or even casual acquaintances, don’t be afraid to disconnect, Dr. Skyler says. No, this doesn’t mean you necessarily have to unfollow or block them altogether (but if you’re someone who really struggles with social media comparison, then consider giving it a shot). What she’s referring to is being more aware of how certain content makes you feel so you can adjust your habits accordingly.

If you know a particular pair from your past triggers your insecurities, for instance, maybe don’t punish yourself by scrolling through their ritzy engagement photoshoot right after you and your partner got into a not-so-pretty fight. Or if a certain TikTok couple always has you doubting your own bond, unfollow them, or at least give yourself some space. “Don’t open your phone right away in the morning, for example, or even temporarily mute their profiles so you’re not being interrupted with notifications,” Dr. Skyler suggests. “Think of it as a helpful boundary to prevent you from going down the rabbit hole for too long.”

If your relationship feels unfulfilling, talk to your partner.

In the case that you really do feel like your relationship is lacking or that your significant other isn’t satisfying your needs, sit down and talk to them about it. It’s natural for your idea of what a successful connection looks like to evolve over time, and what you needed in your first year of dating probably differs from what you need in your fifth, Battiola says.

Maybe you used to not care about receiving flowers, but now you’d really appreciate a bouquet of lilies—or some other token of adoration—from time to time. Or perhaps you think you might want to experiment with an open relationship, even though you hadn’t considered it before.

It’s important to communicate effectively, though, and not blame your partner for your unhappiness, Dr. Skyler says. She suggests using “I” statements, which might look something like, “I’ve been struggling with feeling a little underappreciated,” instead of “You don’t get me a spontaneous iced coffee in the morning like [insert name]’s partner does.” Talking things out won’t necessarily help you avoid a breakup if you’re ultimately not on the same page, but the key is, rather than obsessing over what could be better, you’re dedicating your time and energy to improving your current situation.

We’ll say it one more time in case you really need to hear it: No one’s relationship is perfect, Instagram is a highlight reel, and you’ll probably be much happier if you focus your #couplegoals on your own love life. And think about it: Even if your romance was straight out of a fairy tale, wouldn’t that get pretty boring pretty quickly?