Ellen Langer

Jane can’t understand how her spouse has changed. When she first met Charles, he was wonderfully generous and now he’s become a tightwad. Every time he lets their friend Richard pick up the check without a fight, she gets angry and starts telling herself how stingy he is.

When couples first come together, the implicit comparisons they make are about this person compared with the world of other possible mates. It’s unlikely that if I value a particular way of being, say generosity, that I’ll choose to be with someone who is stingy. If being smart matters to me, my choice is not likely to be someone I’d consider stupid.

Although they come together because of our similarities, couples argue about their differences. We all know how unkind we can be in the way we think about the person we fell in love with. How could I have gotten involved with someone so petty, stupid, sloppy, irresponsible, etc? No matter what the characteristic is that leads us to now think ill of someone we used to adore, there is a kinder, simpler explanation for the differences that lead to arguments.

Once Jane choose to be with Charles, she become the person to whom she now most often compares him. Being oblivious to how the range of her comparisons has narrowed—from everyone out there to just the two of them—leads her to forget how similar she once thought they were. With just a single point of comparison, one of them has to lose. Maybe she needs to take a closer look at how she’s magnified a very small difference.

Once we recognize that no two people are going to ever be exactly the same on any characteristic, we are able to realize that one of the two will always be more generous, wiser, neater, better with handling financial matters, and the like. It has to be so.