I’m sort of embarrassed to admit this, but it feels like my girlfriend of two years and I are competing. I went back to start my Masters, then she applied to do hers the following semester. Last June, she started eating better and exercising more and lost 20 lbs, and all of a sudden there I was signing up for Crossfit and counting carbs. Sometimes, it’s harmless, but other times I feel like we can’t be happy for each other because we’re too focused on one-upping each other (or at least, that’s how I feel). Got any advice?

Competition in relationships (particularly ones in the dating stage) is actually quite common. The research on competition suggests that we’re most likely to compete in areas that matter to our identity, and even more if it’s with people with whom we relate or share commonalities. For example, with any partner I’ve ever had, I’ve actually felt quite angry if they’ve beaten me in tennis. However, if they schooled me in say, replacing brake pads, I didn’t give a crap. Some believe this is because if we are outperformed in skill areas that are integral to our confidence, self-esteem, and identity, our self-worth in undermined.

Some suggest it is within sibling relationships that we develop such tendencies, competing for our parents’ love and validation. This then transfers from the parent/child relationship to the romantic relationship. Some suggest that, before the couple truly considers itself a unit (which often happens during marriage), they still feel the need to prove themselves as individuals. Of course, chances are, there’s a combination of things contributing to the presence of competition in your relationship.

So, what to do? Well, first, check in with yourself and acknowledge how it makes you feel when your partner does something that leaves you wanting to compete. This will be an important indicator for creating change. Vulnerable? Afraid? Angry? Threatened? People generally feel a need to “prove themselves” if they feel as though their worth is being threatened, or that they might not be “good enough.”

Then, bring attention to it with your girlfriend. Perhaps not during her thesis defense, or when you’re having people over for dinner and she brings out the crème brulée you’d expressed interest in learning to make, but sometime when you know you’ll have the time and the environment to discuss things. Use “I feel” statements to avoid bringing about defensiveness—e.g: “There’s something I’ve been wanting to bring up with you. I’ve been noticing something happening in our relationship, and I’m wondering if you notice it, too: Sometimes I get the sense that we’re competing. This leaves me feeling vulnerable, confused, and frustrated. What do you think?”

Now, if she says, “OMG I notice it too — I’m so glad you brought it up,” then the topic is now open and you can discuss it. Voice your shared responsibility contributing to the issue: (e.g. I’ve been thinking about it, and I have a feeling the reason I feel a need to compete is because I worry I won’t be good enough for you/myself if I don’t outperform you), and suggest ideas for change or brainstorming (e.g. I’m going to make a point to pay attention to when I feel the sense that I’m competing with you). Now, it’s also typical for people to get defensive when they’re feeling accused of something. Although “I” statements tend to decrease the possibility for this to happen (as opposed to “You” statements that tend to seem accusatory) she may not have the same insight, or might feel accused or embarrassed and act defensive as a result. If you receive a defensive or denying reaction, focus on what you can do to notice when you’re comparing and change your reaction.

Use immediacy when you notice competition is putting a wedge between your relationship. Some couples find it helpful to use a word — in this case, perhaps “comparing” might fit. For example, if you find yourself feeling competitive, say “comparing” either in your head or out loud, and check into what you are feeling. Perhaps an urge to prove yourself is coming out of feeling threatened or insecure. Notice this urge. Be curious about it. Don’t judge it. Then, rather than reacting with a need to “one up,” sit with that feeling of inadequacy and give yourself a compassionate statement such as “I’m feeling a need to compete right now because that’s a habit I’ve been in for a long time. Initially, I thought competing would make me more loveable, but I now realize this habit does not serve my relationship, and I realize the real accomplishment is not reacting to my urge to compete.”

If you receive a positive response from your loved one that invites discussion, I encourage you to explore areas where it might be better, at least for now, to do some things individually rather than as a couple (e.g. if you find your Crossfit classes aren’t enjoyable because you’re too focused on outperforming each other, it might be a better idea to take classes at different times for now), and to instead do something more “fun” together (take an art class, join a recreational softball team).

Finally, it’s likely that as your relationship continues to develop and feel more secure (and as you begin to feel more secure with yourself), the desire to compete will decrease. However, it likely won’t hurt to say something like, “I love you regardless of what you achieve or how long you run for. I want to be with you because of the person you are, not because of how you look on paper”.

Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC

Although many individuals share similar concerns relating to their romantic relationships, no two persons or couples are the same. Romantic Reminders’ Registered Clinical Counsellor, Megan Bruneau, provides professional advice that some might find helpful influencing how they consider approaching their concern; however, her advice is by no means a substitute for couple’s therapy or one-on-one professional help. Megan advises all of her clients to seek relationship support in the form of a trained professional if their situation grants them the opportunity to do so. Additionally, if physical or emotional abuse, addictions, or mental illness are present in your relationship, this advice likely will not be suitable or sufficient for you. Instead, individual and couple therapy are strongly recommended.

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