I hate everybody else's relationships
May 25, 2015 12:47 AM   Subscribe

I don't know if this is a life stage thing or a terrible personality flaw or what, but I find myself feeling contemptuous of others' relationships, even though it's 100% none of my business. I want to stop this.

My question is similar to this one, except it's more specific to my judgments of others' relationships.

For example, for a long time I felt very judgey of my in-law's new marriage (which started from an affair that reeks of classic midlife crisis). After this event, I started to realize that I felt negatively not only towards my stepmother-in-law, but also towards the relationships of many friends and even acquaintances.

I feel especially contemptuous when the relationships are relatively new. I don't have issues with others' longstanding relationships (e.g. relationships that existed before I met the acquaintance). For example, when my best friend began her new relationship, I was pretty ho-hum about it. I didn't say much, since I knew it wasn't my business, but I didn't feel particularly happy for her, and also felt disappointment and contempt towards the new relationship, even though I knew the guy she was dating and knew he was a good person.

These feelings roughly, but do not always, correlate with whether I think the relationship itself is a good match or not (which is, again none of my business).

In the above example, I knew that my friend was getting into a relationship simply because she didn't want to be alone in grad school, and that the match itself wasn't ideal (it ended up not working out for the reasons I predicted earlier, as confirmed by my friend). Another example: when my roommate got into a new relationship, I also felt similar antipathy towards the whole thing-- I was vaguely glad that she was happy in the moment, but I also felt uneasy about her relationship because I sensed that the guy didn't take her seriously and she entered the relationship because she felt very insecure about herself. (She later confirmed this to me herself, so I wasn't totally off on that, either.)

I don't experience the same antipathy towards relationships of more distant friends, although sometimes I do wonder, "what could their connection possibly be?"

I wish I didn't have to feel so negatively about others' relationships; it's a waste of energy and I feel like an awful person for having these judgments. I wish I could be neutral or apathetic towards others' relationships, but I'm not. I am not sure where these judginess is coming from; I don't think I'm prone to jealousy, and I'm not threatened by any of these relationships.

For what it's worth, I'm in my own very happy, loving and stable relationship of nearly 10 years. I have loner tendencies, constantly feel like an observer, and suffer from bouts of existential loneliness. I am also very personable, sensitive, accommodating, caring. I don't think people know that I have these thoughts since I keep them to myself. I think I am pretty good at reading people and understanding their motives; my friends frequently reach out to me when they want relationship advice or to sort out their feelings on something. Although intellectually I understand that I will never truly know another person's reality, and thus I should refrain from judgement, I am obviously super judgey. One hypothesis I can offer is that it might be possible that I think that my feelings about other people and social situations are "always right" (because, well, I have a pretty good track record of being "right" about these things) so it's "okay" for me to make these judgments, but it's really not. I want to stop being like this.

Thanks for your help!
posted by fernweh to Human Relations (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'd bet on this all being a phase or a lasting resentment toward your in-laws or whatever, rather than a character trait, but it's something worth pondering. Ideally, I think you'd tackle this head-on by practicing kind/generous thoughts about those relationships, because presumably there's something you can find praiseworthy in a relationship that happens to be working or something trustworthy about your friends' decision-making. Where you find you have no info, you might weight that more positively than you do now, or maybe just lowering your standard for what a good relationship is would help you get there; like, if everyone's essential needs are getting met and no one's crying, that's a good enough relationship for now.

You might also come at this sideways by looking at how confirmation bias, fundamental attribution error, negativity effect, and other cognitive biases affect your judgment in general. You can't get rid of them, but when some judgment reaches the point where you're dwelling on it, you may occasionally recall these as good reasons to discount it. Maybe knowing you're not sure, knowing you don't have the full picture, and learning to be comfortable with that and let the world be whatever it's going to be is something you're able to practice in other domains, such that when you think about others' relationships you're just automatically a bit more relaxed than you are at the moment. Naturally, I don't have the full picture myself, so I don't know. :)
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:13 AM on May 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best person for you to practise being non-judgemental about is you, simply because you're always around when you need you.

So next time you find yourself displaying a mental habit that you wish you didn't have, perhaps you could practice simply noticing that That Thing just happened again, then positively picking up the threads of whatever was in your mind just before it did. That way, you let it go without beating yourself up for it, which over time will take most of the sting out of it.

You can also take advantage of your tendency to existential loneliness here, by reminding yourself that what's in your own mind truly is strictly private, which means that the only thing you need to exert true control over is what you do with those thoughts. If you find yourself expressing your irrational judginess about stuff that's none of your business, then you can work on nipping that in the bud; but it is quite honestly completely harmless for you to think whatever you think about anything at all.

I know for a fact that my own mind is full of weird kneejerk prejudices that absolutely do not reflect the person I would wish myself to be. Over the years, though, I've come to realize that yeah, that stuff is all in there and yeah, I do need to be a little vigilant to stop it leaking out and hurting people I'd rather not hurt. But that's really all it takes - a little self-awareness, and a little vigilance - and on the scale of things, that's about par for the course.

How the vigilance actually works is that I now notice when I'm thinking one of those useless things, and I just go the little internal wry smile, counter it with a slightly sarcastic internal "yeah, right, goodonya" and move on. It works pretty well; I seem to be able to get on OK with most of the people I meet.
posted by flabdablet at 1:17 AM on May 25, 2015 [11 favorites]

I've struggled with similar issues myself and I think sometimes it's important to realize that the intentions behind the judgements aren't entirely terrible. There's a reason this is happening more with close friends than distant: you care. You're a good judge of character and you likely have an idealized image of who your friends should end up with, and when that doesn't pan out, or the timing is off, it feels "wrong". But... they're trying. Just as you're trying not to judge, they're trying to make a go of things and feel their way in the world. What's often helped me is to think back on times in my life when I've entered into "not so right" relationships, or made "wrong" choices, and to remember that my close friends likely had very similar thoughts and likely wished I chose differently. I'm grateful they stuck by me, were honest with advice, and I'm honestly ok knowing they might always think "ya... I knew that wouldn't pan out..."

I think trying to push the thoughts away will only make it worse. Accept them as indications that you care, acknowledge that they're not indicative of reality (i.e., you're not living the situation), and accept that for your friend this is the right choice for right now, and may continue to be. Considering you've been in a relationship for a good chunk of time it might be beneficial to kind of meditate on how exciting your first dates felt? How despite not really knowing each other or where it would go, it was so thrilling and fun? That may help you connect with your friends' happiness without needing to know the ins and outs of the others' intentions. Accept the critical thoughts (which are likely indicative of care and good concern), don't push them away, but try connecting to your friends' excitement and fully acknowledging that each new relationship really is an unknown.
posted by hollypolly at 1:19 AM on May 25, 2015 [8 favorites]

Also, could the contemptuousness come from your own avoidance and struggle with your thoughts and judgements? I.e., even in your post you mention time and time again how not "ok" it is to have these thoughts. You're really doubling down on the self-infliction there!

If you accepted that its really ok to have critical thoughts of your friends' new relationships (cause I think that's a totally common, human thing to do) and let them just be indications of care devoid of real meaning, then maybe you wouldn't feel contempt towards the new relationship? Be aware of the thoughts, acknowledge them, tell yourself "I'm uneasy about X dating Y cause I think she might be doing it for the wrong reasons....but that's cause I care about her long-term happiness" and then focus on some kind thoughts about her and move on. As flabdablet said, you may need to loosen the grip on whats ok and not ok to think about.
posted by hollypolly at 1:47 AM on May 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't find your behavior as pathological as you seem to. You think a lot about the relationships of people that are close to you because you're a concerned friend, etc., and your instincts about the relationships that you've described (as far as you've seen their lifespan play out before your eyes) have been validated.

It very much is your business if people who are close to you are happy or not. Doubly so if they often come to you for relationship advice. It seems like your spidey sense is tingling because you perceive very acutely the flaws in these relationships that their participants either can't or don't want to see. Often it is easier to see the positives and negatives of human interaction from the outside rather than as a participant.

I think the path to wisdom and self-acceptance for you is to recognize that every relationship is flawed in some way, so just because those flaws exist doesn't mean it is a Bad Relationship.

At the same time, it's a totally legitimate and necessary friend thing to do to express concern to a friend that s/he may be getting into something that may not turn out well for them.

This must be balanced with the recognition that sometimes people seek out relationships that you may see as flawed specifically for that reason (e.g. "Yeah, he doesn't pay much attention to me, but I just need the physical relationship right now.") If someone gets what they are wanting out of a relationship, what's the problem?
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 1:54 AM on May 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Maybe you're just anxious for them, and cynical about relationships that end.

Just because relationships end or two ppl aren't perfect for each other doesn't mean they're not beneficial experiences. Relationship endings don't have to be crash and burn, but they often are because that's the ou way to get out of them permanently.

Maybe rethink your idea of what the purpose of romantic relationships are. They all don't last forever, but that doesn't mean they aren't worth it if they don't.

Honestly, you just seem impatient with yourself and others. Maybe you're a bit of a perfectionist? Because perfectionism and romantic endeavors don't really mix. Finding love is a messy business and can result in pain but that's why pat benatar rarely performs live.
posted by discopolo at 1:58 AM on May 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

I feel this unnervingly often, and what's comforting to me is knowing that my relationship with the people I care about—and even the people I only kind of care about—is not determined entirely by the weird intrusive thoughts I have about them. Basically, I believe it's okay to think something you don't want to think and fight it off consciously, and that while you're doing that it's not necessarily accurate to think of the "real you" as the one who's thinking mean things about people with no provocation.

That split you mentioned, where preexisting relationships seem totally natural and the ones you were around for all feel like mistakes, was especially true to my experience. For me it often goes away after I get to know the New Person as an individual.
posted by Polycarp at 1:58 AM on May 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

Take a moment to redirect your thoughts when you catch yourself thinking judgy thoughts. I have a friend in a relationship where I think the SO is...not who I would have picked for them. If something negative creeps into my mind, I consciously think about how happy my friend is with SO. No qualifiers allowed. My friend's relationship is not about me or my happiness. But don't berate yourself for the judgy thoughts, that just means you're lingering on them (and seriously, sometimes people are annoying, and it's OK to think that, just don't dwell on it).

If that feels a bit too much like lying to yourself (let's face it, sometimes relationships aren't good for the people in them), remind yourself that, getting into a bad relationship isn't a moral failing. Getting into a relationship that ends isn't a failing (most of them do, right?) and it doesn't mean the relationship was "bad," just that it was time to end. You likely want to protect your friends from the pain of a break up (like with your in-laws?), but the only way to do that is stick them in bubble wrap on a shelf, and that's not fun either. Sometimes the "bad" relationships help people figure out who they are and what they should look for in an SO.

Also, you may be a good judge of character. That doesn't mean your job is to save people from themselves (and I don't mean that you're being a busy body, just that you want to help your friends). It sounds like you have the right balance on the outside (giving advice when asked), just remind yourself that other people are responsible for their own choice and don't take on that burden.
posted by ghost phoneme at 5:22 AM on May 25, 2015

For example, for a long time I felt very judgey of my in-law's new marriage (which started from an affair that reeks of classic midlife crisis).

I think Monsieur Caution is on the right track-- you may have started to notice this sort of thing because of that one event. There's kind of a shock when you or someone close to you falls into one of those classic patterns. A character in a Margaret Drabble novel said something like, "People really get married for money? I thought that was sort of a myth or fairy tale." (Not an exact quote at all.) It's like you get cynical about stuff for a while.

An interesting question might be: so what is your idea of a perfect relationship? Is it automatically not ideal if someone gets into a relationship out of loneliness, or for financial security or citizenship reasons? This isn't a rhetorical question; I don't know myself.
posted by BibiRose at 5:44 AM on May 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm not your therapist (but I am a therapist). Here's what I'm picking up from your text:

The Three Relationships you use as examples of your contempt:

(1) your in-law's new marriage ("which started from an affair that reeks of classic midlife crisis")

(2) "I knew that my friend was getting into a relationship simply because she didn't want to be alone"

(3) "I sensed that the guy didn't take her seriously and she entered the relationship because she felt very insecure about herself"

In all three cases, the people you know entered relationships because of what you perceive as some kind of weakness on their part. You then tell us some things about yourself, e.g.:

"I constantly feel like an observer, and suffer from bouts of existential loneliness." It seems that, when others are expressing their insecurity you potentially could identify with them, but you also have very high standards for yourself, and therefore can't tolerate identifying with those weaknesses, when people seem to be compromising their standards in order to make themselves feel better.

When these insecure people make themselves feel better by getting into a romantic-sexual relationship that you feel is "beneath" them in some way, you become contemptuous. They are supposed to remain alone and suffer -- as you do.

You say you're in a great, long-term relationship. Of course you are. The only alternative would be for you to be alone. Because you would never allow yourself, if you found yourself alone, to cling to someone for the sake of just feeling better. That's what all these other people have done, and you judge it harshly.

Now let's talk about that judging:

"I feel like an awful person for having these judgments." You seem to need to feel like an awful person -- that feeling is the "toll" you have given yourself to pay in order to allow yourself to feel the contempt that you don't feel comfortable with.

Basically, you are very hard on yourself and, since you don't let yourself "get away with" having "low" standards, you're not going to let others get away with it either (in your head, at least).

The basic point: you have feelings (loneliness, outsiderness, existential despair) that you are uncomfortable with and that make you feel alienated, and it pains you to see that other people are willing to do just about anything not to have to feel those feelings, whereas you sit and suffer with the feelings. The secondary layer is you tell yourself that you're "better" to sit there and suffer than the little people out there who will cling to any potential partner in order not to feel alone -- but that secondary layer is really a "defense." Perhaps you actually might envy those people who aren't so picky and who allow themselves to have "low standards," but you can't allow yourself to envy them, both because they're "low" and because then you'd have to chastise yourself for being envious as well as contemptuous! (Envy and contempt, by the way, are often considered complementary opposites.)

What's the answer? Maybe to have more compassion for yourself, with all your difficult feelings (including contempt for others' perceived failings). To see yourself as more like these flawed others than different, whether that differentness is "higher" or "lower" (in your head).

posted by DMelanogaster at 6:30 AM on May 25, 2015 [44 favorites]

It seems like you have two uncommonly paired qualities of being very analytical and blessed/cursed with high sensitivity. That combination of traits has probably fared you quite well in life, but it's also a curse because you "know" things about the world that you're not allowed to admit to due to social constraints.

For what it's worth, you're almost certainly right that most relationships have flimsy foundations. But this is because valid, enduring relationships in our culture are defined as those that are proceeding along an inevitable path toward an enduring marriage, and you're measuring all relationships against that standard. Since probably in upwards of 90%+ of relationships will not result in marriage, it is therefore true that almost all relationships will "fail" or linger in some state of being invalid, according to these social mores. And even the couples that do make it to that point, half of them then subsequently "fail" after a few short years. So in a sense it's logical to be cynical about people pairing up, if you view relationships through this lens.

In short, I think you're just parroting back our cultural belief about what constitutes a "good" relationship and what is a "bad" relationship. A "bad" relationship is understood to be anything short-lived or otherwise clearly not headed toward the indefinite monogamous commitment of a heteronormative marriage. A "good" relationship is the kind you're in, long-lasting, stable, probably involving cohabitation, and intended to last forever.

However, it is socially repulsive to mention any of this, especially around people who haven't crossed the threshold of ensuring their relationship is "valid." So you might "know" these things. But you can never express them. The psychoanalytical tradition would then say your only option is to sublimate your talent for picking apart relationships into something socially acceptable, like writing fiction.
posted by deathpanels at 6:41 AM on May 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

I believe you when you say that your relationship is very strong and makes you happy, but even very good relationships evolve and go through different phases and sometimes pose puzzles that we need to figure out.

I know that when my brain starts to fixate suddenly and intensely on other people's behavior, it usually means that there's something going on with me that I'm trying really hard to solve. Like, there was a point where I was really obsessed with the brattiness of people in their early twenties, and I would get SO contemptuous and angry every time an early-twenties person would say something that struck me as self-involved or short-sighted or whatever. And in retrospect, the obvious reason for that was that I'd just turned thirty and I was making choices that were going to send my life in a different direction than Early-Twenties Me had imagined, and so every time I got mad at some shallow 23-year-old, I was basically shouting (in my head) at my past self, "YOU DIDN'T KNOW ANYTHING! EVERYTHING YOU ASSUMED ABOUT YOUR FUTURE WAS WRONG! STOP JUDGING ME! YOU'RE JUST A STUPID BABY AND YOU DON'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT LIFE!!!!!!"

Brains are weird.

If I were you, I would just take this as a gentle, non-judgmental sign that for some reason, right now, your brain believes it's important to think really hard about relationships: what makes a good one? What's are the reasons to get into one, and to end one? Why do people make the choices they do? Probably there is an answer you're looking for, and once you do, this will die down. Are you facing any major decisions in your life - marriage, co-habitation, kids? Has anything changed in your relationship recently that has brought you to a point where you're thinking about the future? Again, this is in no way meant to suggest that there's something wrong with your relationship, only that - as we all do - you're thinking hard and analyzing other people in order to find clues about how to live your best life.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:20 AM on May 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

I feel especially contemptuous when the relationships are relatively new. I don't have issues with others' longstanding relationships... For what it's worth, I'm in my own very happy, loving and stable relationship of nearly 10 years.

I think it's worth looking at why you might be contemptuous of relationships that have not had the same longevity as yours yet.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:50 AM on May 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Are you a no drama sort of person? I hate friends etc starting new relationships I know a doomed to fail because I hate the drama and emotional neediness, energy vampire draining these people will then bring to my life when these things go wrong. I extra resent then blithely setting themselves up for more drama to bring into my life as I have recently spent eighteen months knee deep in my own dramas (health scare and brothers drug addiction) and got no support from people who now want me to care some guy they saw for two months dumped them.
posted by wwax at 8:09 AM on May 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

You know that you don't fully understand the inner landscape of someone else, so it's not really possible to know the reasons and effects of someone's relationship choices. But you seem to be having kind of a hard time actually believing that since you're so contemptuous of people's actual choices.

Instead of focusing on the parts of the relationship that are "wrong" or signs that it isn't going to work out, I'd try focusing on what the relationship does for your loved one right now. For example, grad school is really hard and isolating. Many people become extremely anxious and depressed. Having someone to love and cuddle during that experience can really help maintain needed perspective - and sanity. So what if they're not going to be with that partner forever if it adds to their happiness now?

Even if you can't see something good about a particular relationship, maybe it will help you to see it as that person identifying a need or want in their life and trying to meet it. Maybe they're fucking up, but it's an admirable thing to do all the same.
posted by congen at 8:12 AM on May 25, 2015

I also wonder how you feel about your own relationship, deep down. Not to project too much, but there was a time when my relationship wasn't so great. For a long while I couldn't watch a movie all the way through. Just couldn't do it, because as soon as it got to the kissy romantic part where everyone was all happy, it made me angry. I of course did not connect the things, and blamed it on not being able to tolerate shitty sappy screen writing.

Then it started to spread to real life, friends, etc. just like you describe. Anyone seeming overjoyed about a new relationship, possibilities, optimism and all that triggered cynicism, judgment, and "I know better"-type negativity in me. And I still didn't connect that to me.

Then my own relationship got better, and those external things went away. At some point I noticed this, and thinking about it, I'm pretty convinced it was a subconscious jealousy reaction.

I don't know, everyone's different. Just something to think about.
posted by ctmf at 9:13 AM on May 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Your question reminded me of another one I remembered reading, about a person who wanted to stop feeling contempt for their grad school classmates. I went back and looked at it, and it turns out that was one of your previous questions.

There are a few similarities in your two questions that jumped out at me--in your previous question you also said you felt bad about feeling so contemptuous about your classmates and felt it was wrong to be so judgmental, so it seems like this is something you're struggling with in more than one area of your life. How long have you been feeling like this? Grad school can be very stressful and isolating. Is it possible this contempt you're feeling for so many people is a way of releasing some of that stress? Do you find it easier to feel angry or contemptuous than to allow yourself to feel sad?

I feel like you're noticing these things and putting them together as a sign of something, but you're just not sure what it means. I think there are a few answers in here that might give you food for thought.

[Ctmf's answer made me think of a friend of mine (A) who, for most of the time I've known her, has been quite fond of romance and has usually cheered on other people's relationships and been excited for them when they got engaged etc. However, a few years ago she had a very strange reaction when mutual friends B and C announced their engagement. Friend A was very agitated and concerned, and approached a bunch of us very worried that B&C were making a mistake because their relationship didn't seem strong enough to withstand getting engaged. This...did not jive with literally anyone else's perception at all, and none of us knew what to make of it. To be honest, it just made us worried about Friend A, because it was such a bizarre, out of character reaction. Fast forward to a year later, when Friend A revealed to our friend group that her marriage had been slowly unravelling for a while. Suddenly her strange reaction about our other friends' engagement made a lot more sense.]
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:55 AM on May 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have this reaction to relationships that seem "weak" or "boring" in my own judgmental view. I also hate feeling this way. I have this feeling most often about friends whom I love and admire who then end up with someone I would never dream of being friends with, let alone date. I think part of the reaction comes from feeling like I am forced to like/discuss/hang out with a partner I just do not like. When this happens, I try to remind myself that we have lots in common whether or not the choice of partner makes sense to me. And then I try to find things to like about the partner, even when I feel sure the relationship is lousy.
posted by Sophia Del Verde at 2:23 PM on May 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I came in to this thread because I'm similarly judgey of others' relationships, and let it take too much space in my head. Reading the answers I realize that for me it is, indeed, a fear of how I would feel if I were in those relationships (how would I ever Deal with feeling that insecure?). Also, I want to protect them (and me) from the pain I'm afraid is in their future... which manifests as being angry about their current choices.

One thing I do that helps me to get away from those thoughts is to aggressively focus on my own life, even mundane aspects, to remind myself that I am not those other people, their problems are not mine, and I can only help myself in this moment.
posted by ldthomps at 2:52 PM on May 27, 2015

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