Married . . . with competition

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Competition is a basic fact of life. Most of us consider it normal on the job, at school and, of course, in sports.

But the idea of married people competing with each other seems ugly. The fact is, though, that in many marriages, at some point both husband and wife may become aware of envy and one-upmanship.

Even couples who pride themselves on being equals may wonder, "Is there really room in this relationship for two successful people? Or if one of us advances, is the other one diminished?"

One couple, for instance, decided together that it was important for the wife to stay home for at least a year after their first child was born.

She loved her job, but said she was willing to make the sacrifice. Her husband was happy with the arrangement as long as she seemed to be comfortable with it.

At first the wife enjoyed staying home with the baby, and she loved listening to her husband describe the exciting details of his workday. But after about six months at home, she began to feel as if she were on the sidelines while he'd become the star.

It became increasingly difficult for her to curb her resentment and be enthusiastic about his growing success.

As a marriage and family psychotherapist, I'm finding competitiveness as a marital theme more common these days, so I decided to bring a few couples together to discuss their experiences.

In addition to this couple, the group included a pair of teachers. The husband felt competitive with the wife because she'd been made chairman of her department and was earning more than he was. Like the first couple, these partners competed about certain issues.

A third couple, both deeply involved in community theater, were extremely competitive -- virtually every area of their lives seemed fair game for one-upping each other.

Spouses compete with each other on many levels. A wife who feels uncomfortable when her husband prepares dinner may feel that only she knows what's right for the family; a husband may put down his wife's friends.

Denying jealousy

In both scenarios one partner tries to feel better about him- or herself by getting the edge on the spouse.

Frequently, though, a spouse may be denying his or her competitive feelings. For example, the wife who was jealous of her husband's career was too uncomfortable with the competitive side of her nature to admit to her husband -- or to herself -- how she really felt.

Competition in marriage, however, doesn't have to be a negative experience, one involving outdoing your partner. When your husband's good at something, you may be inspired to live up to his example, not necessarily to surpass him.

For example, if he's calm and in charge when your child has a temper tantrum, you may think, "If he can do it, so can I."

Competitive feelings are normal and can keep you and your mate on your toes, giving each of you a healthy way to measure your behavior and accomplishments.

In a symmetrical relationship, spouses see each other as soul mates and partners. They believe they can learn from and support each other.

One partner may be having more success attaining a goal than the other, but it's understood that at a different time the positions may be reversed.

Still, marital competitiveness should be monitored. Sometimes another dynamic kicks in and competitiveness spirals. Then, without being completely conscious of it, the couple jostles for power, domination and control. Partners try to one-up each other to make themselves feel good, and so undercut each other's self-esteem with subtle verbal put-downs.

This was the pattern followed by the intensely competitive couple. When the husband was made chairman of fund-raising for a local theater group, his wife became head of its renovation committee.

Each spouse then tried to get the edge on the other. Whenever the husband gave reports at monthly meetings, he'd steal his wife's thunder by making her announcements for her.

This couple often seemed as if they were trying to squash each other. The husband would say things such as, "My wife doesn't take risks the way I do" or "I'm a better cook."

The wife, feeling criticized and put down, would respond, "He doesn't know anything about dealing with the kids."

In other words, for them, the more one person failed, the more the other succeeded.

Women 'protect' husbands

Another fascinating dynamic is that many women deliberately play down a one-up position in order to protect their husbands from feeling one-down.

This is exactly what happened in the case of the teaching couple. The wife began to minimize her promotion and pay raise to protect her husband's ego. But despite her downplaying, her husband started to feel as if he'd lost his edge. One night he jokingly asked his wife, "Do you think I'm a better-looking man than you are a woman?"

The wife didn't find it funny; in fact, she was dismayed by his remark. "Before then I'd never quite realized how competitive we'd become," she told the group.

Healthy motivation

Let's start with the woman who was jealous of her husband's career. In a healthy way her own competitive feelings toward her husband were motivating her to act.

Those feelings made her face facts. She was no longer fulfilled staying home, and her career was in danger of being short-circuited.

Once she decided to return to work, she and her husband sat down and discussed the next stage. He not only supported her decision but also pitched in by researching day-care options.

In the case of the teachers, the husband made a move too. Instead of being eaten alive by his competitive feelings toward his wife, he decided to get his master's in special education -- a goal he'd previously put aside.

As his chafing sense of being one-down to his wife eased, she no longer had to put herself down to salve his ego.

But when spouses keep tearing each other down instead of spurring each other on, they have to take careful stock of their behavior.

When the third, very competitive couple did this, something finally clicked with the husband. He realized that the only way he'd been able to feel successful was to stay one step ahead of his wife's accomplishments.

Once he looked at the situation this way, he came to see that his competitiveness stemmed from his childhood experience, which is not uncommon.

Back then, though it had always been done in a seemingly fun-loving way, beneath the surface he and his brothers had been jockeying for the position of Daddy's favorite son. In a way, he was still trying for that.

Keep it under control

Like these couples, you can learn to keep competition in check. If you can feel terrific about yourself only by judging your mate and knocking him or her down, make a conscious decision to shift your focus and take a look at what in your own life you could improve.

Avoid internalizing intense competitive feelings. Talk them out with your spouse so you can diffuse a potentially explosive situation.

At the end of our sessions, each couple could clearly see just how the competitive dimension operated in their particular relationship. The wife who'd been jealous of her husband had to laugh at herself when she recalled the day they first met.

They'd been on a ski slope and had not yet been formally introduced. The first thing he'd done was take the lead down the mountain; next she'd led him to a steeper slope. All afternoon they took turns pushing each other a little further.

"I loved the challenge as much as he did," she said. "And I loved that we were gentle with each other at the same time."

This day set the tone for their marriage: one that challenges and stimulates both partners to do and be their very best.

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