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Blog Short #133: Unhealthy Competition in Relationships

Photo by shapecharge, Courtesy of iStock Photo

A little friendly competition is stimulating and fun. It’s a form of play and can enhance a relationship. But you have to be careful because competition that has an edge to it or goes too far can be damaging. Regular competition in relationships, especially between partners, can threaten the relationship’s survival.

Today we’ll go through some of the most common ways people compete with their partners and offer strategies to turn it around. This information applies to any close relationship, including those between parent and child.

Let’s start with a quick description of what a healthy relationship looks like.

Characteristics of Healthy Relationships

Intimate relationships are, by nature, collaborative, not competitive. They’re characterized by the following:

  • Mutual care and consideration of the other’s well-being
  • Acting as a team
  • Empathy and support
  • Celebrating each other’s achievements and accomplishments
  • Being in each other’s corner
  • Mutual respect
  • Trust
  • Two-way communication, listening, understanding, and honesty
  • Being present for each other even when with other people

The bottom line is that you’re both on the same side and want each other’s happiness.

Characteristics of Competitive Relationships

These are some signs that you or your partner are competitive with each other.

1. Dismiss each other’s accomplishments and achievements.

Both parties may be guilty of this, or just one of you. You’re unable or unwilling to celebrate your partner’s accomplishments. He gets a promotion at work, and you either minimize, dismantle, withdraw from celebrating, or dismiss it as a non-event. You might also sing your own praises at your job and outline how you’ve succeeded and done more.

Sometimes this behavior is more subtle. You give lip service to the event, but your heart’s not in it, and you move away from the subject as soon as possible.

2. Need to be the bigger victim.

This is called “victim competition”. No matter what negative thing happens to the other, your experience is worse and takes precedence. It’s one-upping but of a specific type. You’ve got a worse story to tell. Your problems are more significant, more traumatic, and more intense. Your experiences trump those of your partner.

3. Compete for territory.

You don’t share space, you battle over it, and one person usually dominates. I’m using the term “space” loosely here. It can mean actual space, such as areas in your home, or it can mean needing to talk more than the other, having more attention, having the last word on rules, opinions, or choice of activities. You want the upper hand in deciding how things work and what you each do.

4. Focus on criticism.

You point out each other’s shortcomings regularly and exploit them. One’s up, and one’s down. You’re never on level ground.

5. Keep score.

You both keep score on what each of you does (or doesn’t do) and use it to criticize and punish. Who makes the most money, who has the best friends, who has the better job and standing at work, who does the most housework, etc. You compare skills that aren’t even comparable and can’t show appreciation for or celebrate each other’s contributions.

6. Fight to win, not to resolve problems.

There are no compromises. If one has to succumb to the other, it is with smoldering resentment. If you have kids, you might ensnare them in your battle while building your defenses along the border. You may encourage them to choose sides.

Why and How Couples Become Competitive

Those descriptions are the extremes, but if you find any of those describe to some degree your relationships – romantic or otherwise – consider whether any of these possible causes apply.

Developmental issues are triggered.

The closer, more intimate, and longer you’re with someone, the more early developmental issues are triggered. If you know someone from a distance, you may get their best presentation because you haven’t triggered anything that’s tied to early attachment models they have with their parents. But intimate relationships will trigger those issues, and they’ll begin to show up in their behavior toward you. The more intimate the relationship, the more they show up.

How often have you heard someone say,

“My husband (or wife) is super nice to all our friends. They all love him and think he’s wonderful. But that’s not how he is with me. I get his worst.”

That’s why sometimes couples are fine while dating, but things change once they’re married. The commitment causes those triggers to appear.

Insecurities surface.

If you have insecurities about who you are, your worth, or your ability to perform or achieve, you might try to overcome these feelings by denigrating your partner’s success. It’s not so much that you don’t admire your partner’s achievements; it’s more that they exacerbate your lack of confidence. You can’t help but compare yourself and come out on the losing end.

Behavior was modeled in your family of origin.

If you grew up in a family where your parents consistently competed with each other and were at odds much of the time, you’ve internalized that behavior model even if you strongly dislike it.

If you had a parent who competed directly with you, meaning they sabotaged your progress, didn’t show pleasure in your successes, or focused primarily on your deficits rather than your assets, you have been given a heavy dose of those behaviors and may automatically repeat them, even when you wish not to.

Great, so what do we do?

Step 1: Identify the patterns together.

This might be difficult, especially if resentment and distance have crept in. Even so, you can turn it around. Depending on how well you communicate, you can either seek counseling to help unravel it or try it on your own.

If both people can focus on identifying how and why they’re competing with the other, without a lot of recrimination on each person’s part, you can change the patterns.

This entails gaining empathy for each other. No one acts like this because they love it – unless they’re a sociopath or psychopath. Most people fall into it, and it continues until it’s the automatic response.

Start with yourself.

If you’re unsure how to communicate about it together, begin with yourself. Journal or write out the ways you contribute to the pattern. When and how are you competitive with your partner? Be brutally honest with yourself, but don’t beat yourself up.

Instead, carve out some small new behaviors you can exercise to turn it around. You could try listening with full attention when your partner tells you something good that happened to her and show interest. Withhold a negative comment you don’t need to make.

Use the list I gave you at the beginning that describes a healthy relationship. What behaviors can you incorporate to reflect those characteristics?

Step 2: Work on becoming a team.

Use this team idea any way you can. Appreciate each other’s contributions. What do you both bring to the relationship, home, finances, and kids? Whatever it is, appreciate every little act. If you both do that, you’ll close up the distance that’s grown between you.

Step 3: Get help.

If your history is holding you back and you can’t work through these patterns, see a counselor to help you work on your issues so that you become stronger and happier on your own. Get to the root of your insecurities, anger, victimization, or whatever holds you hostage.

Even if you ultimately leave a relationship because it’s become too toxic and is beyond repair, you still need to work through your patterns. Otherwise, you’ll repeat them in the next relationship and pick another toxic partner.

Relationships are a lot of work, but they’re worth it in the long run if you apply the effort.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,


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