Why It’s so Easy to Feel Jealous of Other Families, Even Into Adulthood

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Growing up, I couldn’t understand why my mother held me to what felt like a zillion rules and regulations, and I desperately wanted her to be more like my friends' parents. I remember feeling jealous of a friend whose parents let us eat chocolate after school and watch whatever we wanted on TV and then, in later years, were okay with boyfriend sleepovers and distinctly illegal activities because they'd "rather it at least be in the house." You know, cool parents—not regular parents.

As I got older, I grew to appreciate that my mom's rules were really for my benefit and she held me to them because she wants the best for me. (Not that the cool parents didn't want the best for their cool kids, just that, you know, there's more than one right way to do something). But still—even knowing this, and even though I'm an adult—my feelings of family jealousy sometimes still act up. For instance, my mom isn't always the most helpful source of comfort to me as I navigate mental-health struggles—and this isn't the case for one of my friends, who shares every aspect her depression symptoms with her mom.

While I don't deny that my emotional journey is valid, envying other people's familial relationships is uncomfortable, largely because it's distinctly teenage seeming. Whenever I have a bout of it, I feel as though I might as well shake my fists above my head and scream "but it's not fair!" And yet, I continue to experience the jealousy, and I've found the sting to hurt more severely as I've blossomed into adulthood. But why does this happen, and how do we deal with these feelings?

How we end up envying other people's families in the first place

To start from the very beginning, when you’re small and haven't even mastered things like walking, feeding yourself, or anything having to do with the bathroom, your family is your entire world. Whether you're bred into a high level of dysfunction or you have heartwarmingly Brady Bunch-esque situation, what you're born into is all you know. Until you start socializing with other people, that is.

"We are exposed to other dynamics by being at each other's houses and seeing how our caregivers respond to our friends. This starts the process of comparing your family to others." —Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT

"When we grow up and are exposed to what our family dynamics are, sometimes we don’t know that other families function differently," says marriage and family therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT. "Over time, we are exposed to other dynamics by being at each other's houses and seeing how our caregivers respond to our friends. This naturally starts the process of comparing your family to others."

In effect, it's as if you realize, "oh, wait, there are other options out there." "Feeling jealous is usually tied to feeling like there were some needs not met by your own family," says Thompson. "When you start to feel jealous of another person's family, it's an indicator that there is a longing inside that was not met." So, if you hail from an uptight, rigid crew, you might be drawn to your laid-back friend's family, made up of a team of huggers who's only sense of structure is Taco Tuesday.

Into adulthood this situation still persists, but rather than seeing it during supervised playdates and regular exposure to a friend's family, it mostly transpires at highly performative events, like weddings and milestone birthdays, and, of course, on social media.

Some perspective for when you feel jealous of a friend for their family dynamics

Let's say you felt down when your college pal posted an Instagram of her family wearing matching Christmas sweaters while you spent the whole holiday delivering passive-aggressive messages between your parents, who weren’t talking again. Well, here's a friendly reminder that social media—along with childhood playdate behavior—is a highlight reel, not the full story.

"Being in someone’s family as a family member is very different than viewing a family on the outside," Thompson says. "A lot can happen behind closed doors within a family." (See: SuccessionGossip Girl, every single dramedy about rich people and their dirty laundry.)"

How to stop envy from tanking your self-esteem

All of this being true, many people do have genuinely strained, toxic relationships with family members to whom they don’t feel close. And even those of us who do have amazing bonds with our family members likely carry some sort of baggage from our upbringing. Regardless of where you fall, it's important to remember that if you don’t feel loved, important, or recognized in your family, it isn’t because you’re unworthy of love.

"It's absolutely normal to compare, and a lot of times, people experience grief around what their family could never provide for them." —Thompson

"It's absolutely normal to compare, and a lot of times, people experience grief around what their family could never provide for them," Thompson says. "For example, if you are a deep-feeling person and want to talk about your feelings, but your family members don’t, you may feel isolated and that there's something wrong with you."

And this doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you, but if you still feel jealous of a friend for the relationships they have with their family members, you might consider using the opportunity to introspect about what might be going on with you beneath the surface leading you to feel this way. Whether it has to do with accepting your loved ones for who they are or finding people who accept you for who you are, there are definitely people who can help you feel right at home.

Family drama? You're not alone. These are the most common things people in therapy discuss about their parents. And here's how to cope if your sibling overshadows you.

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