“Like mother, like daughter.”
“Like father, like son.”
What about that one? Have those four words passed your lips – with pride and affection?
Other variations come to mind, especially when you’re mad or overtired.
“You’re just like your father” spoken with a contemptuous tone will leave your child internalizing more than the words themselves. After all, if the underlying emotional meaning is one of disapproval, and wrapped in a confusing message when associated with a parent your child loves!
Defining Statements With Lasting Impacts
When words spoken in anger are even more explicit and carry a nasty edge – “you’re selfish and a liar, just like your father” or “you’re a lazy bitch, just like your mother” – it’s easy to imagine the damage that is done. And trust me, these damning and defining statements will come back to haunt us, especially in adolescence as kids wrestle with separation and identity.
What if we could think before we speak? What if we could sit with those closest to us and not compare them in a negative context? What if we paged through albums and noted the engaging and entertaining qualities we love, the good times shared, the stories we recall, and refrain from dipping into comparisons of any sort unless they are positive?
Wouldn’t that provide more space for self-definition? Don’t we eventually come to understand the ways in which we resemble our parents – or don’t?
Rivalries, Resentments, and Becoming Your Mother
Shall we mention the sibling-to-sibling exercises in compare and contrast? Some only hint at parental disappointment: “Your sister was good at this,” you say with a sigh. Others are more cutting, though you may not intend the words to hurt: “Why can’t you be as responsible as your brother?” Or: “Your brother was very good at math. I don’t know why you have an issue.”
Ah, the battering to one’s self-esteem when you find yourself on the receiving end of parental favoritism.
In my experience, negative comparisons of this sort saddle us with terrible baggage, especially when the experience starts young. As children, we absorb these messages as “truth,” we fight to get out from under them as we grow up, and they may become self-fulfilling prophesies. Having these early experiences imprinted in our brains – we may find ourselves repeating these same patterns when we become parents ourselves. Who among us hasn’t heard echoes of Mommie Dearest tumble out of our mouths, only to exclaim: “Oh my God! I’m becoming my mother!”
One other downside: It’s difficult to love anyone to whom we’re constantly compared – and we always seem to come up short. Jealousies take root. Rivalries are never entirely snuffed out. Resentments build.
Keep Balance, or Keep Quiet
Of course we can reference resemblance to family, those we’ve loved in the past, or aspects of character, behavior and temperament we recognize. Everything needn’t be a compliment, but words can hurt at any age. Shouldn’t we use caution?
When my boys were little and our family dynamic was painfully shredded, I purposely complimented them on specific talents, mentioning their father in what I intended as reassuring ways. Although he and I were on terrible terms, I did not want to be an impediment to my children’s relationship with both parents.
I told my younger son how gracefully he moved on the tennis court like his dad, which was true. (He liked hearing that.) I told my elder that I was amazed at his mechanical ability (I was), and he was fortunate he seemed to inherit that gift from his father. (He would smile.) I offered my remarks with pride for their skills, along with the hope that they felt a positive parental connection.
While “you’re just like your mother” or “you’re just like your father” may be spoken with approval or appreciation, generally speaking, these are barbs. So don’t use them that way! And if you’re angry, consider this: Silence can be the superior short-term option.
Romantic Rivalries: Hubby Number 1, Girlfriend Number 2…
What about comparisons to ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, the dead husband, the second wife, the “one that got away?”
These, too, can be damaging when we throw them in the face of the person we’re romantically involved with now. How easy it becomes to remember the long-gone deceased spouse or the once-upon-a-time terrific boyfriend; their flaws fade with the years and their talents take on epic proportions. How can anyone compete with that?
If enough time and distance are part of the picture, comparisons to a former lover or partner don’t require that he or she be dead; we’re still glossing over the rough spots and clinging to our glowing moments. I view this landscape of Compare and Contrast as “you’re not just like so-and-so… and I wish you were.”
Those rose colored glasses may be pleasant for the person wearing them. But idolizing relationships past? Bringing them up to the person we’re currently paired with? How must it feel to hear – or even sense – that whatever we do we can’t measure up?
Compare and Contrast… Sexually
Do I really need to say it? Unfortunately, I’m guessing that’s a yes. Comparing one partner to another in bed is bad form and a bad idea!
We may choose to divulge details to a confidante about a person’s prowess in the sack, but we need to be very careful about any variation of “he’s not as good as” or “I wish he would…” that might be better transformed into a discussion with the party involved. And that discussion needs to take place without comparisons to your dead husband, your second lover, the man you lived with after grad school, the woman you had a thing with, or the third guy with the great pecs who was your playmate following divorce.
Must I add that comparisons of body parts may land you in the dog house?
Perhaps I’m attentive to these issues because I understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end – of comparisons set loose by one parent, and from time to time, in a relationship. So let’s leave “compare and contrast” to the college essays. We would all do better to approach what we want and like as well as what we don’t – positioned clearly, but phrased with care and respect.
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