Competitive vs. Combative Relationships: How Abuse Threatens Healthy Competitive Dynamics

“How can I love you when you treat me this way?!” a female client screamed at her husband during a session we had last week. “You curse at me in front of our children, call me every dirty name under the book, and hit me when I don’t do everything perfectly. I F*ING HATE YOU!” Unfortunately, these interactions can become all too common in relationships, as patterns of neglect, frustration, pain, and combativeness can infect how married couples function on a daily basis. It also portrays a serious issue in the context of competitive therapy; when does a competition over winning arguments turn into abuse? Unfortunately it is the case with a great many competitive relationships that power dynamics are the focus of the relationship, and it is worthwhile to address how power and control can become abusive as couples form their relationships. Especially with those who have abusive histories, many individuals learn to “fight dirty” in their competitions, and do more than try to win at arguments: they try to wear their competitors down and gain control over their decisions and behaviors. Those victimized by these abuses may begin the relationship by competing, but often find that they “learn helplessness”, and begin to accept the abuse and internalize the destructive messages.

What is Abuse?
Abuse characteristics can form often in competitive relationships due to an unhealthy development of competitive characteristics. I stress the unhealthy aspect, as having competitive instincts do not necessitate unhealthy interactions, but rather focus on how competition may allow for abuse to fester. “Relationship abuse is a pattern of abusive and coercive behaviors used to maintain power and control over a former or current intimate partner. Abuse can be emotional, financial, sexual or physical and can include threats, isolation, and intimidation.” ( Ultimately, abuse is about more than competition, it is about control. Frequently, the pervasive nature which makes abusive relationships maintain their destructiveness is this aspect of control and a fear of losing control. This is not the same motivation which triggers competitive instincts, that being a desire to win and a fear of failing or losing. They may appear similar, but it an integral aspect of noting what relationships may be competitive and which relationships may be abusive, or combative.

How do we competitively overcome combativeness?
A major aspect of controlling relationships is the lack of acceptance of give and take, of honoring your partner’s contributions and roles with regard to a competition. Sportsmanship addresses this issue in the venue of physical competitions, and the concepts behind sportsmanship may also address control within relationships. Highly competitive individuals frequently say in interviews that while they may want to crush their opposition, they prefer their opposition to be the very best and to try with all of their might to crush them in return. Defeating a helpless opponent is not gratifying, but rather it is abusive. In these ways, competitive relationships may actually work to ensure that all participants are at that sharpest, best versions of themselves to compete. Ways to encourage, empower, and enhance those around you include positive motivational remarks, statements highlighting their internal characteristics, and treating others in respectful ways within the relationship allow for a healthy competitive environment to flourish.

Addressing the concept of combativeness in competitive relationships also cements the idea that those involved in a relationship are antagonistic and at odds with one another. Abusive dynamics are impossible to incorporate into a partnership where those individuals involved are working as a unit to promote their mutual interests and benefits. It is important to recognize abusive elements of relationships as unacceptable and potentially dangerous not only to the continuation of the relationship, but also the safety of everyone involved. There are a tons of great resources available to ensure safety in couples with combative dynamics, including a national hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233). You all are able to live happy, confident, competitive relationships which honor yourselves and the characteristics you bring into a partnership. Abuse doesn’t have to be a part of it.

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