The Contemporary Psychoanalysis Group

Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action

Trying to “Win” at Love May Cost Your Relationship

Zero sum thinking can ruin romance

Posted Jun 29, 2014

By Lisa Juliano, PsyD

We can all be competitive.  An application to an academic program, a job interview, even vying for a taxi at rush hour can be considered a competition of sorts.  The idea of competing is exhilarating to some, frightening to others.  Still others transform every interpersonal interaction into a zero sum game, one in which one person's gain is equivalent to another's loss—there is a clear winner, a clear loser, and no in between.

We learn how to compete at a very early age.  As infants we see ourselves as the center of the universe and, in a good-enough nurturing environment, we are. As development continues, we learn the distressing fact that we are not the center of the universe, that we have rivals: our caretaker’s spouse or partner, a sibling, even a pet can commandeer attention away from us. We employ strategies, behavioral and emotional, to redirect our caretaker’s attention back to us.  If development proceeds optimally, we learn to tolerate and make room for others. 

 Why We Like To “Win”:

Sometimes, we get stuck feeling as though we have not had enough attention, affection or affirmation from important others. If we reach adulthood feeling as though we missed out on a parent’s love and approval, a caretaker’s warm regard or a specific teacher’s validation, we might attempt to recapture some of that lost love by setting up subsequent relationships as contests or battles. We find the achievement of others intolerable; it makes us feel depleted and defeated. If another wins, we lose.

This is not to say that there aren’t actually winners and losers in life. If you miss out on the last pair of tickets to the Springsteen concert because some other guy got to the box office before you, then he’s won and you’ve lost.  That is a zero sum game. However, when we apply zero sum thinking to our interpersonal relationships, life can become painful, a vacillation between hollow victories and devastating defeats.

A former patient of mine struggled with this very problem.  She came from a family that valued debate as the chief method of communication.  And she, being the youngest of four siblings, felt she was rarely ever able to “win” any argument posed by her highly intelligent and verbal parents and older sisters.  The discussions ranged from politics and social justice to where to go on vacation or what to have for dinner.

 This young woman often felt ignored by both parents, shadowed by her accomplished older sisters.  Her school life became a battleground where she took on far too much to prove herself worthy.  Every friendship and romantic encounter was reduced to a contest of wills and wits.  If she “won,” the person was not worthy of her; if she “lost,” she was devastated and reduced to the lowest rung of the self-esteem ladder. 

The Bad News

Shortly before leaving therapy for a new job out of state, this woman began dating a man who wouldn’t participate in her contests. When she would declare “I win!” during a conversation, he would look at her quizzically and say “who’s fighting?”  She was bewildered by this behavior and soon found ways to vilify and diminish him.  Sadly, she was quite successful at this—the potential for a mutually satisfying relationship with no battle lines drawn withered away.  She left town convinced that either she was unlovable or that no one was, as she chillingly put it, a “worthy opponent.”

Relating in this way is painful and frustrating to both members of the pair, I’ll call them the “combatant” (the person who initiates the contest) and the “target” (the person on the receiving end).  The combatant is constantly vigilant, working to prevent the other from taking advantage.  Such hypersensitivity can transform even the most casual remark into an attack. The target grows both weary and wary of the partner’s aggressive style and eventually needs to draw his own battle lines, wave the white flag of surrender or just leave the relationship. 

Allow me to complicate matters by suggesting that BOTH parties can be the combatant and target simultaneously.  All it takes is one person to feel unseen or unacknowledged in a time of personal distress and early fears can get triggered with injury bouncing back-and-forth between the pair.  Each person will go to their respective side, hunker down and refuse to budge. We can all be vulnerable to this; no one is immune.

The Good News

What can be done to prevent relationship Armageddon? First, we must examine why it is so difficult to tolerate a “loss,” including a loved one being “right” about something in an argument.  Secondly, it is imperative to create a space that represents “us,” in which both people’s minds, hearts, desires and needs have equal consideration. This is not easy to establish. But without this “us space” any important relationship is in danger of becoming a series of skirmishes in which both parties greedily and resentfully keep score; a place where “I win” really becomes “we’ve both lost.”

Lisa M Juliano, PsyD, is a graduate of the William Alanson White Institute and has a private practice in Manhattan, where she specializes in working with artists.  You can visit her website: for more information.