I’m not speaking of a friendly game of tennis or billiards. I’m talking about a kind of competition which runs through the very fiber of your relationship. Your whole relationship, or some large part of it, is a kind of grueling competitive sport – perhaps more akin to a battlefield – where you and your partner constantly seek “wins” over each other.
Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus, author of Marital Myths, has this to say about such competition:
“Competition is corrosive: it insidiously gnaws away at the very fabric of togetherness and trust that forms the basis of any good marriage. A competitive attitude tends to diminish the mutuality, joint striving, and common goals that characterize the interactions of successful couples.” 
“If a husband and wife are not a collaborative pair, the main purpose of being married is violated.” 
The basic competitive attitude can perhaps be summarized as: “You and I have opposing goals, and I wish to score against yours!” For opposing hockey or football teams, that serves an entertaining purpose. For a couple that means one person – the winner – might be entertained. If someone wins, that means someone loses.
Opposing teams don’t collaborate – at least not intentionally – and neither do opposing partners. You cannot aspire toward common goals when you are on different teams.
What kind of people compete in this way? How does it get started? What does it look like?
First, a competitive relationship requires two players. No competition can occur unless both partners are “game.” What this games looks like is both partners more or less constantly attempting to “score” on each other through one-upmanship. If you say something funny, for example, your partner will either attempt to say something funnier or deny that what you said is funny (score a point or deny that you scored a point). Any perception that you’ve been bested will lead to anger and plots of revenge. In the most competitive relationships, it looks like two people who fight a lot and don’t care for each other much.
I think the kind of people who get trapped in this endless cycle of one-upmanship are usually those who feel threatened by another’s good qualities, because they believe their partner’s positive attributes cast a bright light on their own failings. They see their partner’s strengths as somehow coming at their expense. Why they feel these things is an enormously complex topic – the subject of countless psychology books – but the basic gist of it is that they lack self-esteem. They have, to one degree or another, what was once popularly called an “inferiority complex..”
To get started, all you need is the desire of both partners to demonstrate that they are better than the other. This isn’t simply about getting your way. This is about proving your superiority. If you believe you are a better person, that means in some overall sense your will must triumph over theirs. The better person, in the name of all that’s just and good, must prevail.
There are infinite ways partners can attempt to undercut or one-up each other. Your girlfriend tells a funny story, so you attempt to tell a funnier one, or perhaps critique the story. Or you find some way to steal the spotlight from her. Your husband thinks he’s the accountant, so you show there’s an error in his math. His loss, as your Significant Opponent, is your gain.
You can also score points on your partner without directly competing over a particular item; anything that subtracts from their joy or satisfaction is a win for you. He’s exuberant over a promotion; you burn his dinner or make cracks about how easy his job is. She thinks her new dress looks great, and you point out how much better she’d look if she’d work out regularly like you. In this competition, you’re only limited by your sick, twisted imagination.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
If you find yourself in this god-awful mess, and you’d like to escape it, what can you do? The first step is to acknowledge, as is almost invariably the case, that you are part of the problem. “But she starts all the fights and is always picking on me! I’m just defending myself!” That may be, but you are defending yourself as a competitor in a game of “who is better.”
You can’t have a competition with just one player, any more than argue when no one is arguing back. You have met the enemy, and he or she is you.
If you wish to remain in the relationship, your only escape is to stop or reduce your competing. I think that’s your only realistic chance of getting your partner to tone down. Leaving your Significant Opponent for a new, less competitive partner may also solve that particular problem. It’s true that being with a competitive partner fuels your own competitiveness.
But if you do that, you’ll be left with the same problem – a lack of self-worth – that causes this behavior. Perhaps being with a “gamer” is an opportunity to dig deep and try to get to the bottom of your need to one-up others?