Surviving a “Need-to-Win” Partner

Read here to better understand what may be going on inside.

Posted Aug 15, 2018

Source: VGstockstudio/Shutterstock

When you approach your partner to talk about something that is bothering you, do you find yourself tightening up inside, as if you are readying for a battle you cannot avoid? Do you find yourself skirting important issues, because you know that you’re in for a difficult interaction if you bring them up? When you can’t get away from a conflict, do your insides already hurt, because you know it’s not going to end well?

If these dilemmas feel familiar, you may be in a relationship with a need-to-win partner. On the other end of any potential of conflict, these kinds of partners are immediately combat-ready. The moment they anticipate any potential dispute, they move into attack-mode, willing to use any tactic to destroy their partner’s rationale for requesting a change of any kind.  

If you’ve been in a relationship with this kind of partner for any length of time, you’ve most likely spent a lot of your energy, wits, and time trying to resolve these frustrating interactions and to find any solutions that work. You’ve asked your partner questions like, “If this isn’t the right time, do you want to wait until another time?” Or, you’ve tried to lower the intensity. “Hey, it’s just not that important if you don’t want to deal with this. I’ll figure it out on my own.” “I think you’re being a little over-sensitive. I really didn’t mean to upset you.” “How can we ever talk about anything if you immediately get defensive and attack me?”

But, no matter how hard you’ve tried, nothing has worked. You’re up against an intolerable situation. You can’t get your partner to cooperate, you can’t forever suppress your needs for resolution, and you aren’t yet ready to walk away.

So, you suggest that the two of you seek professional counsel and get some tips. Not even a chance. Yes, you can go to fix yourself and find out why you are so “difficult,” but it is clearly not his or her problem.

Without any other option, you do seek help on your own and learn some useful tips. Armed with new hope, you try using them to be a more effective conflict resolution-seeker, sharing your own accountability with your partner, in hopes there will be reciprocity.

Open to his or her responses, you ask questions like: “Do you think that I just pick the wrong time for us to resolve a problem?” “Do you think I don’t recognized when you’re too stressed?” “Do I bring up stuff you don’t think is a problem or should just resolve on my own?” “Am I too intense or pushy?” “How could I approach you in a better way?”  

Not only does this “If I offer my own accountability first, you will be more comfortable taking responsibility for yours” approach not work, but your partner seems glad that you are finally seeing that you are the problem.

Feeling finally at the end of your rope, you begin asking yourself the more difficult questions you’ve been trying to avoid: “Am I with someone who cannot ever bear any challenge, even one that is totally reasonable?” “Am I supposed to accept any behaviors and just focus on the good things in the relationship to get along?” And, finally, “If this is never going to change, can I live with the situation as it is forever?

The decision to stay in a relationship with a partner who must win at any cost is a tough one. You know that great relationships truly depend on both partners being willing to own their own accountability in conflicts and to seek resolution together. If you can’t get your partner to agree to those basic relationship tenets, should you truly stick around? Are the assets in the relationship enough to outweigh what you’d have to give up?

Here are five common reasons why these need-to-win people fight as they do. Perhaps that will help you better understand what may be going on inside of them and give you the data you need to decide whether you can survive this part of your relationship, or whether you need to leave.

1. Fear of Being Erased

Many people anticipate that they will automatically lose any argument if they do not immediately establish their righteous position and fight to hold on to it. They may not even realize they are invalidating you at the same time. You can tell from the expressions on their faces and the fearful sounds in their voices whether they are feeling like they’re going to lose if they don’t squelch you as soon you as you begin.

If you’ve been with this partner for a while, you may have noticed that he or she is fearful of being dominated or suppressed in all relationships. These people truly feel like their basic emotional survival is at hand when they are challenged and fight from a self-created corner.

2. Attachment to Power

You may be in a relationship with a partner who truly feels or acts as though he or she is always right and feels entitled to the power to dictate the outcome of any conflict. These types of partners cannot bear any kind of challenge to their own version of what is true and do not trust others to know any better.

If you share their biases or prejudices in many areas, you may not have noticed how they always need to end up on top. Locked-in points of view are only a problem when people do not see things the same way.

However, if you do have the need to assert a confrontive voice, you will immediately activate your partner’s need to dominate and hold a power position over you. No matter what new information you provide, he or she will typically not listen or agree to anything different from what has already been established.

3. Love of the “Game”

There are people who just love to fight. They look forward to disputes to exercise their conflict muscles, using everything in their saddlebags to keep a conflict going and, if at all possible, to win.

They usually play within some kind of self-defined rules, but will even stretch those if they feel threatened. They are also offended when you tell them that they just need to win every fight and don’t care about who you are or how you feel. From their point of view, it’s just a chance to play the game, and they can’t understand why you are taking them so seriously.

These partners get over the fights very quickly and expect you to do the same. Their behavior can be confusing, especially if the subject is important to you. True resolution is not their goal, only to enjoy the battle.

4. Dirty Fighters

If you are in a relationship with a need-to-win partner who is determined to destroy your ability to resolve the issue at hand, please seriously heed the following advice.

Dirty fighters will use any words or phrases they need to win. They will hit below-the-belt, throw anything back at you that you thought was sacred, bring other people’s opinions in to support their positions, risk your sanity by throwing you up against your own conflicts, tell you you’re crazy, tell you that you’re too difficult, invalidate any of your own opinions as useless, and make the problem all about you.

If you are enmeshed with, or attached to, this kind of relationship partner, you will feel yourself as prey to a predator. In that role, you only have four options: to kowtow, to work around him or her, to avoid any conflict, or to leave the relationship.

5. When Bully and Victim Are the Only Two Roles to Play

Many people grow up with a parent who gets his or her own way by bullying and dominating others. If they are not exposed to any other partner interactions, they may grow up believing that people are always going to be one or the other.

They don’t ever want to be a bully, but they also don’t ever want to live the life of a victim, so they avoid conflict in every way they can. But if their partners ever do challenge them in a way that makes them feel victimized on the other end, they feel no option but to bully their partner into submission. 

These locked-in partners suffer from their conflict. They feel guilty when they realize what they have done, but equally righteous that they had to because of what they believe their partners have done first. They never wanted to have-to-win, but felt there was no other option.

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Conflicts are part of every relationship and learning to resolve them with equanimity, self-accountability, and an eye to a better future is a crucial aspect of successful relationships.

However, if you are partnered with a person who always needs to be right, you may be unable to change him or her no matter what you do. Without hope that there can be a fairer way to resolve conflicts, you might have no other option but to end the relationship to hold on to your own right to vote.

Hopefully, if your need-to-win partner can understand his or her own underlying reasons for that behavior, there is hope. But, that is only likely to happen if you are courageous enough to be ready to end the relationship if change is not possible. Sadly, most need-to-win partners are only motivated to change when not losing you is more important to them than winning.