Is your marriage plagued by an unhealthy spirit of competition?
Competition is part of human life and has many benefits for individuals. One of the most obvious is that it encourages us to extend ourselves and develop our abilities. There’s nothing like a bit of competition to push us past our normal limits.
The dark side of competitiveness is that it can spread beyond one activity and infiltrate the whole relationship, poisoning the friendship and putting us permanently on guard.
In a marriage, such a competitive spirit can be very destructive. Marriage calls us to be generous towards each other, to be on the same team working together for our common goals.
When husband and wife compete against each other, it undermines their togetherness and introduces a score keeping mentality. Instead of operating from the position of gratitude and trust, we end up scanning for weakness, inferiority and deficits in the other.
Common areas where competitiveness can creep into a relationship might be…
- Income: who’s contributing more
- Budgeting: who’s spending more
- Career: who’s got the most interesting one
- Relationships with children: who’s the favourite parent
- Housework: who’s doing more
- Recreation: who’s getting more
Often, the interior drivers of a competitive spirit are opaque to us; we are driven to compete with each other, but we don’t really understand why. Sometimes patterns learnt in our family of origin can continue to influence us. In many cases, childhood frustrations persist into our adult life, where we subconsciously seek to resolve them through our intimate relationships. For example, a child who competed with a sibling to gain her father’s attention might transfer that need to other paternal substitutes such as her boss, the parish priest or her husband.
So what can couples do if their marriage is plagued by unhealthy competitiveness? Here are three steps to slaying the competitive monster.
- Do a diagnostic:
a. In what ways are you competitive with your spouse? Be specific about the area and the specific actions or words you use to express your competitive spirit. Eg: I compete with my spouse over recreation time by jumping in first and booking gym classes that are difficult to cancel.
b. When you catch yourself being competitive with your spouse, what thoughts are going through your head? Eg if I don’t get in first, I’ll miss out.
c. How does it impact on your emotions towards your spouse and theirs towards you?
- Dive deep into yourself:
a. What was your experience of competition in your childhood? Eg sibling rivalry, parental favouritism, bullying, exclusion etc.
b. What longings or frustrations do you have as an adult from your childhood experiences?
- Adopt a new way:
a. Share your answers together or with a trusted friend. It can really help to bring healing into these parts of your life by naming the childhood frustrations and praying for healing.
b. Choose one competitive area of your marriage and think about a specific counter-competitive gesture you could do. E.g. I will discuss with my spouse before I book my gym classes to determine a mutually convenient time.
c. Before playing competitively together (eg a family board game), remind yourself of the higher objectives: to bond together and improve everyone’s skill. Corral your competitive drive to work for your relationships not against them.
About the Authors
Byron Pirola is husband to Francine and father of five. Byron is a Management Consultant by day and by night, the co-director the Marriage Resource Centre with Francine and coauthors of the SmartLoving series.
Francine Pirola is the founder of CathFamily and regular contributor and editor. She has been married to Byron for over 25 years and has five children. She is also the author of the My School Diary Series that is used by over 100,000 catholic school students and teachers around Australia every year.