One of the cardinal rules of marriage is to recognize that you and your spouse are on the same team; at least you should be. Yes, we live in a world that is rife with competition. From the time we enter school, or an athletics team or land our first dream job, we are competing to prove that we are better than everyone else. In all spheres of life, “winning” invariably brings us recognition. It validates our efforts and affirms our worth. Then we get married and everything changes. Suddenly we find ourselves in a partnership where competition can be a real enemy and where we have to re-school ourselves with regards to putting someone else’s needs before our own; namely those of our spouse.
So how do two high-achieving, driven, ambitious partners play out their marriage without hurting each other in the process? And is competition always as lethal as it sounds? I believe that even before we begin to think about marriage; like in the earliest stages of our committed relationship, we have to begin to envision ourselves as a team where we the parties, basically have each others back.
Depending on how we were raised and on our earliest life experiences, competing for attention and feelings of self-worth may be akin to breathing. Many of us in the human-services field recognize a distinct difference between the child who in her formative years was lavished by the attention of one or two primary adults, versus the child who was forced to clamor for attention at day-care. One appears more settled and secure and seems to have less of a point to prove, while the other may have perfected the art of screaming for attention to ensure his primary needs were met.
Many of us Psychologists believe that this behavior follows us well into our adolescent and adult years. While of course this is one generalization, it brings home the point that apart from our own natural instinct for survival, social conditions often force us to focus on our own needs first and having them met. Yes, to some extent this may be all well and good but very often it can be at cross-purposes with the higher, more selfless ideals of marriage.
If we truly understand marriage to be a supportive partnership hinged on collaboration and NOT competition, then there are perhaps some critical areas which we may need to pay attention to. The truth is, we very well might not be able to guard against competitiveness in marriage unless we can first recognize it in ourselves. The following lists are designed to help you assess whether your relationship with your spouse is competitive or collaborative.
While I don’t necessarily believe that all competitiveness is intrinsically evil, I definitely don’t believe that marriage or a committed relationship is the place for it. Competitiveness in our relationships can alienate our partner from us and can succeed in driving a wedge between us. This can leave our relationship vulnerable and open to more friendly and supportive external influences which could be lethal; if you get my drift.
In a relationship where we feel celebrated and supported, we are motivated to rise above our daily challenges. This in fact empowers us to be our best self and redounds to the benefit of the relationship. Support should however be mutual and not lopsided. If your partner is the one competing with you, then don’t tolerate this. Lovingly confront your partner, encouraging him/her to take personal responsibility for change.
If you find yourself to be overtly competitive with your spouse and find it particularly hard to shake the habit, then this may be worth some personal reflection or deeper exploration with the help of a counselor. If you are ambitious and competitive on the job, you may also need to drop this attitude once you reach home, recognizing that your marriage should not be a hostile war-zone. Taking the time to discover how you, as a couple, can be best together is a vital part of building a strong collaborative partnership where each of you “wins”.