When Couples Compete…

When Couples Compete…

A friendly tussle over a board game is one thing. But can rivalry ever hurt your relationship? Happen takes a closer look.

By Maggie Kim
ou're always trying to one-up each other during Jeopardy or challenging each other's positions on global politics. Sure, some healthy debate can add a little spice to your love life. But can constantly fighting over who's right (or who's better) put a damper on your relationship? We asked experts to weigh in on this kind of competition, using three real-life couples as our guinea pigs.

Couple #1: The Career Competitors

The Players: Michelle, 34, and Ralph, 42

The Situation: Michelle and Ralph are both teachers at a dance school and frequently butt heads over who's the better teacher. Says Michelle, "Sometimes when we teach a class together, he'll undercut me in front of the class or show off with a new move to wow the students. It causes a lot of tension between us." Ralph, however, thinks the problem stems from Michelle's hyper-competitiveness. "Michelle needs to do everything better than everyone else. If she sees someone else dancing, she'll always say, 'Oh, I can do that better' and that attitude bothers me."

The Solution: "This is an unhealthy level of competition, especially because they're demeaning each other in a work environment," says Happen expert panelist Dr. Jane Greer, a psychotherapist and author of Adult Sibling Rivalry: Understanding the Legacy of Childhood. "This is all about who has control—of the class and the relationship. But ultimately, competing for control in a relationship will spoil all the fun."

Set up some ground rules, suggests Laurie Puhn, J.D., a Harvard-educated attorney and communication expert and author of Instant Persuasion: How to Change Your Words to Change Your Life. The first should be to never criticize each other in public—and especially in front of students. Their second rule should be to replace criticism with compliments. "Give at least one compliment each day," Puhn says. "The competitive spirit diminishes when you feel the other person wants you to do well."

Once they've gotten used to complimenting each other's teaching instead of undercutting it, Michelle and Ralph can work on building each other up, which can make them both better as teachers as well as strengthening their relationship. "If Michelle is showing a dance move, Ralph should build on that instead of trying to outdo her," Greer says. "They need to respect what the other does and give each other recognition for it."

Couple #2: The Gotta-Win Game-Players

The Players: Anne, 32, and James, 29

The Situation: Anne and James compete mainly over games: movie trivia and board games like Scrabble. "James gets pretty huffy when it comes to Scrabble because he has yet to beat me," Anne says, adding, "And I absolutely wipe the floor with him!" James admits that things do sometimes get out of hand: "Scrabble brings out our nasty sides. We'll trash-talk each other's alma mater or SAT scores, but we chill out once the game's over."

Another thing they occasionally compete for: attention from the opposite sex. They tend to flirt in front of each other at parties. Says James, "We both like being the center of attention!"

The Solution:: Friendly, silly competition of the kind Anne and James have is generally healthy, say our experts. "The competition spurs them on and enhances their fun," Greer says. "It also highlights their self-esteem and regard for each other. Basically they're both saying, 'I'm lucky to have you. You're a great catch who everyone wants to be with.'" To add some more spark to their game-playing, Greer suggests wagering, whether the prize is giving a massage or doing the dishes that night.

It's important to make sure that friendly competition doesn't turn darker, though. To make sure their trash-talking doesn't get out of hand, Greer suggests putting an iron-clad rule into place before playing any game: No yelling or anything worse than mild teasing—or you're out. Puhn adds, "If one of them walks away from the game feeling angry, then this is a problem they need to discuss."

This holds true for flirting, too. That's an arena that can quickly cause trouble. Though both of them seem to take it in stride, they need to watch how things progress. If the flirting bothers either of them at any point, advises Greer, they need to have a conversation about what's comfortable for each of them ("Hey, I was feeling upset when you were talking to so-and-so when I was waiting for you by the food").

Couple #3: The Better Bargain-Hunters

The Players: Sarah, 28, and Patrick, 31

The Situation: These two constantly compete over who's found the best deal on everything from airfare to long-distance phone service. Says Sarah, "I'll do a ton of research trying to find a deal and he'll do none, but he'll tell me he knows he can get a better bargain." Counters Patrick, "She'll come home with something she bought and gloat, 'I got this for 75% off while you wasted your money.'" The couple also argues about general knowledge like geography: "We've had to settle a lot of disagreements at the reference section of Barnes & Noble," admits Patrick.

The Solution:: "There's clearly an issue of 'who's brighter?' here," Greer says. This borders on the unhealthy, she says, because crowing over being the smarter one implicitly puts down the other person.

How to handle the situation? As for the bargain-hunting, Puhn suggests trying to see it as a team effort instead of a competition. After all, if Sarah finds a great deal on their vacation, Patrick benefits by saving money too—and if Patrick turns around and finds an even better deal, Sarah should be thrilled to save even more. "They should just be happy that the other person has found a great deal," Puhn says. "It's a matter of perspective. They both gain something from the other person's skills, so they should praise each other for being such great bargain-hunters."

And how about the Jeopardy-style debates over general knowledge? Puhn suggests putting these battles in perspective: "First off, they need to find factual solutions," she says. "Are they fighting over a fact or an opinion? If it's a fact, they can easily look up the answer and instead of arguing, they can celebrate finding the right answer together."

Maggie Kim is a Scrabble champ who can even grow her hair faster than you. Challenge her at
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