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Is It Healthy for Partners to Compete With Each Other?

Knowing the difference between a good rivalry, and a bad one.

Key points

  • Rivalries in your relationship can be a source of friendly pleasure or intense pain.
  • New research on workplace rivalries emphasizes what differentiates a good from a bad rival.
  • By deciding to learn from your partner instead of compete, both of you can benefit from some healthy rivalry.

When was the last time you made a bet with your romantic partner?

Perhaps a soundtrack of a movie you're watching plays an oh-so-familiar tune. You're certain it's “X,” but your partner claims it's “Y.” Time for a little one-dollar wager on the subject. After some frantic Googling, one of you is proven wrong. The loser feels a bit annoyed but takes it in stride, and the revelation leads to shared laughter and perhaps the offering for a rematch sometime.

Rivalries can prove innocent, as in this case, or they can prove anything but. When a serious rivalry develops at home, one partner may feel that the other really isn’t rooting for them to succeed.

Imagine that you get a raise and promotion at the end of the year, but your partner does not. Obviously, both of you benefit from this great news, but your partner may feel too threatened to provide the praise you would hope to receive. How can you overcome this potentially destructive force from becoming a major obstacle to happiness?

Rivalries at Home vs. Rivalries at Work

New research by the University of South Florida’s Joseph Regina and Tammy Allen (2023) could help provide some answers. Focusing in on rivalry in the workplace, their study of 406 working adults compared those who reported having a rival at work with those who did not in perceptions of work-family conflict. The idea behind this study was that when people have a rival at work, they are at risk of bringing that rivalry back home, where it worsens their relationships with their partners.

Extrapolating to the rivalry that can exist with your partner, the USF study could help explain what can go wrong when this form of interpersonal strife gets out of hand. With a basis in what’s called “resource theory,” Regina and Allen propose that any stress in one domain, whether work or family, drains your emotional capacity to fulfill the needs of both sets of roles.

Although workplace rivals have the potential to take away your own valued resources (such as compensation or opportunities for advancement), relationship rivals can take away your resources as well. If, instead of silly bets, you and your partner compete daily for whose meals rise to the level of gourmet cooking, or who is more loved by your children, the stress can be just as draining.

It's not only conflict but the “transfer of resources” from one domain to the other that can prove stressful. In order to beat out the competition with your rival, you have to get that much better than they are at whatever particular skill is at stake. As a result, you become preoccupied with becoming better than your rival. The variable the authors call “psychological detachment” gets at this idea that a rivalry can make it impossible for you to disengage enough to get the rivalry out of your mind.

Testing Rivalry’s Impact

To understand the potentially harmful effects of rivalry at work on relationships at home, the USF authors administered a series of online questionnaires across three time periods. At Time 1, participants reported on their rival in terms of whether they had one and if so, how intense the rivalry was. Time 2 measures assessed psychological detachment, or how easily they could distance themselves from their rival. At Time 3, participants completed the work-to-family conflict measure. All of this took place over a 6-week period.

To get an idea of what the participants responded to on the rivalry questionnaire, ask yourself whether your relationship involves “subjective and/or social comparisons.” Then answer whether you consider this person a “mild” or “fierce” rival, and finally, whether you think they are better than you or vice versa. Does your partner constantly try to outshine you (fierce), or are your rivalries limited to occasional trivia challenges (mild)? And do they win more often than you do?

As you might imagine, in this study, it was also important to control for participants' general level of competitiveness as a personality trait. You or your partner may just be competitive people, no matter who you’re up against, and you therefore naturally carry this over into your relationship.

Turning to the findings, the nature of the rivalry made all the difference in predicting the levels of stress the participants reported. Not only were those competing against fierce rivals more stressed, but they also reported finding it harder to detach psychologically from work during their non-working hours. In other words, it’s harder, and more stressful, to get out of your mind a person who you feel is your major competitor and who is ahead in the battle.

Now, switching gears back to rivalry in the home rather than the workplace, there is every reason to conclude that continuously losing to your partner could similarly drain your emotional resources, especially if your partner revels in their victories. Unlike work, you can't necessarily distance yourself from the constant drumbeat of competition, which can create self-doubt and insecurity.

Turning Rivalry into Relationship Strengths

There is a positive side to the findings. A mild rivalry doesn’t seem to be necessarily bad for your relationship. But is it possible that it can help?

Think about the kinds of back-and-forth teasing you and your partner might engage in as you debate facts whose validity can be tested. You might hate losing—but might there also be some pride you feel in the fact that your partner knows so much?

And how about your partner? Do they seem pleased that they’ve become involved with someone who is so smart? A healthy competition between people willing to show good sportsmanship can potentially build bonds rather than lead to strife.

If instead, you are your partner easily become embroiled in a bitter argument from which escape seems impossible, this creates a different set of dynamics, especially when one of you is always the loser, and the partner likes rubbing it in.

Simply identifying the fact that the rivalry exists can be the first step out of this unfortunate bind. Maybe you weren’t even aware of how much competition serves as a theme in your relationship. Finding ways to reduce its intensity and frequency can then be an important next step in the process.

You can also use rivalry to your advantage if you reframe it as a reflection of how similar you and your partner actually are in your interests and personalities. Turning an ugly test of who’s better into a friendly sparring contest can become a valuable reframing exercise. You might even go so far as to make explicit the enjoyment you get out of learning from each other as you enhance your storehouse of information, skills, or interests.

To sum up, turning small rivalries with others into growth opportunities, whether it’s your partner or coworker, can help provide a surprising route to fulfillment as you gain knowledge along with the ability to enjoy a healthy spirit of competition.

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Regina, J., & Allen, T. D. (2023). Taking rivalries home: Workplace rivalry and work-to-family conflict. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 141, 1–15 doi: 10.1016/j.jvb.2023.103844

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