You train together, play together, and build a life together. But when does competition stop being friendly and start becoming harmful to a relationship?
Successful athletes can be described in many ways: fiercely determined, driven, competitive, smart, independent, and possessing an inherent love of winning. So what happens when two highly driven, world-class athletes fall in love and couple up? The possibilities are endless when both partners actively participate in sport lifestyles that bring out the best – and sometimes worst – in each other. (Have a partner that doesn’t want to hit the gym with you? Check out, Does Your Love Connection Loathe Your Gym Visits? to try and bring out that competitive edge.)
On one hand, this can be a beautiful union: authentically encouraging and supporting your partner results in positive feelings and ultimately a deeper, more loving connection. In fact, research on competitive triathlete couples reveals that training together, sharing household chores, and cuddling all contributed to positive effects in the relationship, including athletic performance. One real life example of this winning dynamic is Greg and Monique McDonough, who both compete in Iron Man events, have full-time jobs and children. Their secret to domestic bliss? They don’t compete with each other in races, but instead, they know how to play nice in a competitive relationship, and use each other to gauge speed and decide when to kick it up a notch.
As Greg puts it, “The relative measurement motivates me to try harder or to stop slacking off, or to realize that the day is hard for everyone.” Monique concurs: “We have a built-in support system at home, and that’s hugely helpful for our training, accomplishing our goals, and continuing to strengthen our relationship.”
On the other hand, there’s a dark side to even the friendliest competition between highly driven partners. The desire to be the best can ignite negative feelings that spill over into the relationship and can even affect performance. This isn’t just true for athletic pursuits; couples may compete in many arenas of life, whether it’s who makes more money or who is the better parent, and even who is more successful at work, or has more friends.
Researchers from the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology suggest that the toll this competition mindset takes on couples can lead to reduced or compromised self-esteem, and though one-upmanship can make one partner temporarily feel better about him or herself, the other partner is often left feeling inadequate. Worse, the need to one-up one’s partner is ultimately satisfied at the expense of the relationship itself.
So how do you know if you might be trying too hard to outdo your better half? Here are some telltale signs:
· You feel left out or resentful when friends compliment your partner
· You always want to be the winner, even at the expense of your partner
· You secretly hope your partner doesn’t do something well
· You feel angry about your partner’s success
· You find yourself trying to outdo your partner
· You feel happy and superior when your partner fails
Now, before you start thinking you’re a terrible person just because you have felt one or more of these things before, let’s be honest: it’s perfectly natural to feel competitive with your partner from time to time. For example, you may feel a twinge of disappointment when friends notice how your partner has gotten stronger and faster over the past few months, even though you’ve taken minutes off your workout and have really been killing it at the gym. This letdown, however, quickly fades, because ultimately, you’re happy for your partner’s success.
But, when these feelings of disappointment, anger, or jealousy become stronger, don’t fade, and begin to negatively affect your relationship, it’s time to take a step back. Being overly critical, unsupportive, or even sabotaging your partner’s success are all behaviors indicating your competitive instincts are getting in the way of your relationship.
So how you can turn those feelings around? First, creating a healthy, competitive environment is an “inside job,” meaning it starts in your own head. Acknowledge your feelings without self-judgment; you are simply seeking to understand. Then, begin to explore the meaning you are ascribing to your partner’s success: What does this success say about you? What are you afraid will happen? With more clarity around your fear and self-doubt, you can commit to a new, healthier way of existing in the relationship.
Developing keener self-awareness and being responsible for your feelings will put you on a path that will strengthen your relationship and help increase your self-esteem. And face it: your partner’s ability to perform and succeed was in large part what originally attracted you to him or her. So when you commit to mutually (and lovingly) encouraging each other’s further growth and success, it’s sure to not only create extraordinary possibilities for you individually, but also make your overall relationship strong enough to go the distance.