Competing with your spouse: is it good, is it bad? Or like us — if you’re playing mini-golf — it’s just plain ugly! At least, as ugly as Caleb’s putting skills…

Oh…snap!

For some couples, competitiveness is just a bit of fun: even though it may feel like life or death when you’re at the final hole of the mini-golf course, it doesn’t really have much impact on your marriage. But for others, competitiveness is more of a lifestyle thing: you’re trying to compete with each other in all areas of life. Can competitiveness in any form be good for marriage?

Two Kinds of Competitiveness

There are two different forms of competitiveness as a personality trait.[i] The difference is to do with what motivates you to want to do well.

    1. Competing to win: that is about being highly competitive because you enjoy winning and beating other people. At extreme levels, competing to win is called hyper-competitiveness: “an indiscriminate need to compete and succeed at any cost[ii]”.
    2. Competing to excel: this is about being highly competitive in order to surpass your personal goals and grow as a person. In effect, competing with yourself. This also gets called personal development competitiveness.

Obviously, these are two different kinds of competitiveness that have different causes and will impact marriages differently.

While neither style of competitiveness is directly linked to marital satisfaction, each one creates behaviours and attitudes that do have a very real impact on marriage and on other relationships as well. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Competing to Excel (Personal Development Competitiveness)

Whereas competing to win normally involves being motivated to beat somebody else, competing to excel is simply about individual accomplishment and doing the best you can, irrespective of how you compare to others.

Since this form of competitiveness is not dependent on other people losing in order for you to win, it does not lead to negative forms of competition and is positively linked to collaboration and communal connectedness[iii]. Wanting to be your best doesn’t stop other people from being their best too: in fact, it often helps them.

Within marriage, this makes couples more likely to adopt a joint perspective and to resolve conflict in ways that benefit both spouses. Competing to excel is also linked to positive personality traits and behaviors which are good for marriage, such as[iv]:

    1. High self-esteem
    2. Lower rates of depression
    3. Higher positivity
    4. Higher resilience to adversity and the ability to cope with bad circumstances
    5. Higher desire to learn new skills and improve as a person
    6. Higher internal motivation, leading to better performance in areas such as work

So that kind of competitiveness in marriage is not really something that will typically come between the spouses. It is healthy. And not all couples or even spouses within a couple will have the same level of competitiveness and that’s OK.

Competing to Win

Competing to win is a little more nuanced. There are still positives here but some potential issues.

A desire to win and succeed is a basic human motivation. Some level of desire to win and do well is required to function in most areas of life as it provides motivation[v]. I mean, if you weren’t motivated to do well, you’d struggle to really get anywhere in life, right?

Now think about this in a marriage context. Healthy levels of competing to win within a marriage are probably harmless. Likely fun, as well. Possibly even good for marital satisfaction especially if both spouses share it equally.

To look at this in a bit more detail, a study in 2015[vi] examined couples who participated in competitive sports as a shared leisure activity. He found that couples who were evenly matched in skill level had high satisfaction with their leisure time, leading to high marital satisfaction. He concluded that these couples would enjoy the challenge of playing against each other and take satisfaction from their victories, as opposed to couples where one spouse always won easily. So for couples who take competition seriously, a bit of challenge is required for it to be fun.

The same research also found that in couples where the wife had a much higher skill level than the husband, satisfaction with the leisure would be low, leading to lower marital satisfaction. This reflects the fact that men are often more competitive than women, so for these husbands, repeatedly losing to their wives would be a big deal. Sound familiar to anyone?

We’re going to talk about hyper-competitiveness next but as you can see this can get a little nuanced.

 

The Right Kind of Competitiveness

So if you are a couple where there’s some definite competitiveness but you want to strike the right balance, our bonus guide this week helps you do just that by taking you through the conversations you need to have to make sure your competitiveness is healthy and mutually enjoyable. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.

 

Hyper-Competitiveness

An extreme desire to win at any costs is often related to serious self-esteem issues. A study in 2011[vii] argued that hyper-competitiveness often stems from damaged parent-child relationships, in which the parent either neglects or abuses the child. This leads the child to have a neurotic need to prove their worth at the expense of others in order to maintain their self-esteem.

As well, due to the underlying abusive parent-child relationship, the child comes to see other people as a threat. So this fosters a hyper-competitive need to win and assert their dominance as a way of coping with this anxiety (re. the threat).

That’s not the only possible cause, of course. Another potential source of hyper-competitiveness is perfectionism[viii]. Being raised in a family where love and affection from your parents was dependent on whether you succeed or not can lead to a strong need to prove your worth in order to feel valued. You can see an adult coming from this kind of childhood holding onto the belief that they need to be the best in an attempt to bolster their sense of self-worth.

Hypercompetitiveness is linked to a wide range of negative behaviors, attitudes and traits, all of which negatively impact marriage. These include[ix]:

    1. High levels of hostility and aggression towards others
    2. Willingness to exploit or manipulate others in order to win
    3. High need to control or dominate others
    4. Tendency to engage in manipulative “image management” to present a certain view of themselves
    5. Low in trust
    6. High in jealousy
    7. Low in forgiveness
    8. High in narcissism
    9. Low in self-actualization (ability to meet their own goals and needs)
    10. Low ability to provide emotional support to partner
    11. Willingness to inflict emotional pain on spouse

As you might expect, relationships characterized by hypercompetitiveness are often highly dysfunctional, showing high levels of conflict. In fact, commitment in these relationships is often based on jealousy and possessiveness, rather than real love and affection[x]. Not healthy.

What Do You Do If You Are Hyper-Competitive?

The first suggestion is to work on better conflict resolution skills. This is something one of our therapists at OnlyYouForever can help you out with. An interesting study earlier this year[xi] found that the link between hypercompetitiveness and distress was partly (not fully) mediated by negative problem-solving orientation.

Within marriage, this means that a big part of the distress you are experiencing may be caused by hyper-competitiveness. That comes from having unhelpful conflict styles. If you have this unhealthy need to win and prove yourself then conflict can become about “winning” the argument and proving you are right, which isn’t a great way to build trust and find mutual solutions. So finding better ways to deal with disagreement will resolve a big part of the issue.

Another suggestion is to deliberately move towards healthier competitiveness. See, unhealthy forms of competitiveness are often rooted in poor self-esteem, or anxiety or the belief that you need to win in order to be valued. Working on these issues within the marriage can therefore help you transition from hypercompetitiveness to the healthier form of competing to excel. We’ll dive deeper into this in the bonus guide but the basic idea is to pursue healing so that you come to your competitiveness from a place of fullness rather than deep neediness.

References

[i] David R. Hibbard and Duane Buhrmester, “Competitiveness, Gender, and Adjustment Among Adolescents,” Sex Roles 63, no. 5–6 (September 1, 2010): 412–24, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-010-9809-z.

[ii] Bill Thornton, Richard M. Ryckman, and Joel A. Gold, “Hypercompetitiveness and Relationships: Further Implications for Romantic, Family, and Peer Relationships,” Psychology 02 (July 25, 2011): 269, https://doi.org/10.4236/psych.2011.24043.

[iii] Hibbard and Buhrmester, “Competitiveness, Gender, and Adjustment Among Adolescents.”

[iv] Hibbard and Buhrmester; Gábor Orosz et al., “The Four Faces of Competition: The Development of the Multidimensional Competitive Orientation Inventory,” Frontiers in Psychology 9 (May 22, 2018), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00779.

[v] Orosz et al., “The Four Faces of Competition.”

[vi] Benjamin Dayley, “Marital Leisure Satisfaction: Investigating Comparative Skill Levels Within Marital Leisure Activities,” All Theses and Dissertations, July 1, 2015, http://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/etd/5481.

[vii] Thornton, Ryckman, and Gold, “Hypercompetitiveness and Relationships.”

[viii] Orosz et al., “The Four Faces of Competition.”

[ix] Thornton, Ryckman, and Gold, “Hypercompetitiveness and Relationships.”

[x] Thornton, Ryckman, and Gold.

[xi] Jacob Yuichung Chan et al., “Asian Adults’ Hypercompetitiveness and Distress: The Mediating Role of a Negative Problem-Solving Orientation,” Current Psychology 37, no. 1 (March 1, 2018): 188–97, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-016-9502-7.