Your Significant Opponent: Competitive Romantic Relationships

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.” [101]

And adds:

“If a husband and wife are not a collaborative pair, the main purpose of being married is violated.” [103]

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?


  1. The point is when does it start? I can see that some relationships set off on this footing, however, having been in a 24 year marriage, I began to be like this because of the increasing lack of investment or interest from my partner in his family, post children. There were signs of it beforehand, but when I tried to do nice things for him, they were hardly acknowledged. So I stopped. This then moved on to his complete lack of participation and support within the marriage and family. I became resentful. Then there were incidents of utter indifference, moving onto acts of total disrespect…these involved the children.
    My sniping began….I was impotent to do anything else. I was tied by 4 children and could not leave and I hated that head that power over me.
    Even now he can control me through inconsistent contact with his youngest child and maintenance payments.

    I have good self esteem, although knocked. My involvement in this ‘power struggle’ was as a result of having children dependant on me and the desire for them to have a father.

    So, it is a competition of needs and can also be caused by factors other then lack of self esteem?

    • Hi, Fiona.

      Well, a competitive relationship is only one possible kind of relationship discord. You can resent and not get along with someone while not being competitive with them. Competition sets in when you both actively attempt to diminish the other. From your description, I don’t think that was the main thing happening in your relationship. It sounds as though lack of communication and common values were the principle culprits.

      I wouldn’t say that lack of self-esteem fuels all power struggles. What one struggles to achieve – for example, the emotional health of one’s children or one’s own independent self – can be causes worth fighting for.

      Where the lack of self-esteem enters the picture is when you seek to diminish the other person in order to build yourself up. In a competitive relationship, you may actually attack your partner’s good qualities toward that end. A competitive relationship may involve a struggle over values or goals – or may start that way – but it’s primary purpose it to beat down your partner, not to achieve any worthwhile things in your relationship.



  2. Finallysteppingintomyownskin says:

    Excellent post, thank you, I can certainly relate to it. I didn’t start off with particularly low self esteem but by being in a relationship of this nature my self esteem certainly dropped and although I didn’t start off competing I do have a competitive nature and certainly became an active participant, I liked your point about a person fighting for their own independence which is what I think I started out doing but this kind of carry on is totally destructive and I could see that in the end I was pitting him down to make me feel better, something I had previously thought he did!!! It became total madness but I can by no means blame any of this on him, had I had full self esteem etc or had I not been getting something out of it, it would not have gone as far as it did so I can be grateful for the relationship and the person as it has highlighted traits in me that I need to address if I want to be the person I like to think I am. Good article, it has helped me get things clearer in my mind!

    • Wow – it’s really refreshing to see such honesty, and in my experience it’s rare indeed for someone to take responsibility like that. It’s interesting and inspiring that now you’ve dropped your competitiveness – otherwise you’d still be trying to “one-up” him with your post-relationship analysis rather than looking at in a fair-minded way.

      I especially liked your “I can be grateful for the relationship and the person as it has highlighted traits in me that I need to address.” I feel exactly the same way about my previous relationship. Now I feel a strange sense of gratitude for being with someone who pushed so many of my buttons!  I think that offers an excellent opportunity to understand yourself better and hopefully become a better person as a result. And there’s something rather liberating about not holding a grudge against someone.

      Re-reading my post, I’m not entirely comfortable with its emphasis on self-essteem. Certainly competitiveness can come from insecurity, but it also can come from other things such as self-preservation or even the simple pleasure that comes from “winning” at something. We don’t usually consider highly motivated professional athletes to be unhealthy because they want to win. There’s something very natural about that, I think.

      But while there’s likely room for some “healthy” competition in a romantic relationship, it must be subordinate to the basic truth that you can only win or lose as a couple – there cannot be any individual winners or losers, at least in the long run. You might enjoy friendly but combative tennis games, but your most important victories can only come from supporting each other as allies. In a competitive relationship, you are not allies.

      I think some women may have competitive issues from being dismissed as children. Perhaps their parents favored the boys to be scientists or better at sports or smarter or whatever. Though this sounds antiquated, I’m not sure this it’s that uncommon even in these allegedly enlightened times. Women raised in such an environment – for example, where they must battle their brothers for attention or other kinds of emotional appreciation – may bring a very competitive attitude to a relationship. I believe this was the case with one former love, and also a good female friend whose parents strongly favored her “perfect” brother. But I’m sure there are countless sources for powerful competitive urges for both men and women.

  3. Well, I wouldn’t say competitive relationships are always bad. My partner and I have always competed over our success since high school. It is a good thing we were in different schools and now, different jobs. We mostly compete over who is going to earn the most, who has the most influence in the company and who has some extra qualifications. That’s all. Ok, want to prove that I can easily keep up with him in marathon ( which is an absolute struggle). But besides that, all is fine. We both have to travel a lot, but I trust him, as I know, he never interferes with my carrier. it is actually a good way of knowing all the opportunities and using them. Being the best of the best.

  4. My girlfriend always likes to blow it in front of me that\\\’s she\\\’s an athlete so how good is she is this sport or that sport n not only that that, whenever i tell her something good about my self like for instance my performance team did well in a recent performance, she would just give a small acknowledgment and then would go on and tells me that she\\\’s done it before and so on basically like she\\\’s trying to tell me that its nothing. It kinda makes me feel down at times but most of the time i would just show support for her and things like that. Recently i just cant take it anymore and kinda like sound her about this and she took it very seriously indeed and instead of doing anything about it she starts to hit back at me and telling me that if i can say that kind of thing to her, she could too to me. I really love my girlfriend n i know she loves me too its just that this problem had been a thorn in my foot for awhile now…what can i do to reduce this kind of conflict? I mean if she cant change her ways then at least help me to somehow not feel this way??

  5. Hi, Jozan (and a very late greeting to Eve) -

    I guess the first question, Jozan, is whether you can be happy being with someone like that. Perhaps her competitiveness is part of what appeals to you, but it has distinct drawbacks? It seems unlikely that you can change your girlfriend, except perhaps by accepting her competitiveness and giving her lots of positive reinforcement (which after all is what’s being sought by someone constantly declaring how good they are at something; a person who gets plenty of positive assessments isn’t going to be as hungry for that, in general). So if you can achieve a certain comfort-level with being complimentary and generally accepting of her preening, then maybe you can make it work?

    To Eve: every couple and every person is different, as the cliche goes, so I don’t have trouble believing your limited form of competitiveness works for you. Please note my “limited”: even you acknowledge that it’s a good thing you were in different schools and are now in different jobs. It seems you’ve achieved a rather playful balance of limited competition and mutual support that works for you. I can easily see a limited and playful form of inter-couple competition being okay. To the extent that it sabotages your alliance – not so okay.

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