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.

Finding the passion after it fades…

Due to new contractual agreements I have made with Good, some of my posts may be visible there and not directly on this site. Please visit this link to find out more!

Many couples find that after time, passion dwindles. But with some coaching and perseverance, they may be able to overcome the slump.

Please let me know what you think, and contribute to the wonderful dialogue already begun!

Toxic Relationships

I always enjoy seeing others’ websites when they comment on relational problems. That includes both professional blog posts and non-professionals as well, as I think anyone with a history of being in relationships can provide valid insight. I came across 6 Toxic Relationship Habits , and I thought it spoke very clearly on many of the patterns that relationships come across that people believe are romantic aspects of love, but in reality are negative and toxic to healthy relationships.

I began to wonder why popular culture has perpetuated these myths, urging us to believe that a lack of trust, obligatory matching emotional states and blurred boundaries should be something considerred positive rather than negative. I believe it’s a relatively recent phenomenon that has occurred within western culture, as other cultures do not mirror these beliefs in the same way. As an example, if a woman looks at her partner disapprovingly, slamming her phone down on the table and shouting obsenities because she believed her partner gave a seductive look to a waitress in an Eastern Asian cultural, it likely would not be seen as acceptable, and certainly not lauded as an appropriate display of feminism.

How as a species have we differed so greatly on matters of ways to conduct relationships? Most importantly, is there a way we can conduct these loving states without getting caught up in romantic notions of relationships without learning ways of actually living “happily ever after”? I think that the suggestions made in this article are very valid, but most be met within a particular context of each relationship. After these toxic behaviors infect a relationship, is there any way to go back to a healthy set of interaction. In many ways, I think that my theory of competition within the relationship offers a way out of this toxicity. I will highlight how the 5 points made by Mr. Manson below:

1. The Relationship Scorecard
This highlights so much of what I refer to as negatively competitive relationships. Arguing and keeping tally of past arguments only establishes resentments further. A way to turn around this experience is to change the dynamic of scoring, and change the competition. Can you think of things that your partner has done that is caring, loving, and considerate? Can you beat them at it, and then rationalize your behavior to be a better, more caring partner than your spouse? Perhaps even more than you have been before?

2. Dropping “Hints” and Passive Agression
Communication is truly the cornerstone of a healthy relationship, and experiencing a lack of communication in a relationship can be difficult to turn around. A state of safety must be established within the relationship, so that each partner can share their feelings without feeling judged or critiqued. A way to create this at first is through a mirroring exercise, where you reframe or paraphrase what your partner is saying, and then ask them for how they feel about it before you respond. If each partner adopts this pattern, it leads to an environment where feelings can be shared, and communication where each partner feels heard within the relational dynamic.

3. Holding the relationship hostage
A testament to how conflict threatens the integrity of the relationship. Any argument, no matter how small, blows up into screaming, yelling, and walking away from the other person. It somewhat reminds me of two fans of rival sports teams, and their overreactions to a seemingly small play that would otherwise be ignored, if not for the history of their rivalry. The important difference is, part of an aspect of sports rivalry is an inherent agreement to engage in competition with respect, within the rules and confines of the game, and to maintain sportsmanship within the rivalry. So, I suggest the same for couples who threaten to leave the relationship at the drop of a hat – either enage in a respectful competition, or don’t be in it at all; the choice is always up to you.

4. Blaming your partner for your own emotions
Codependecy is a very common, and potentially lethal dynamic for a relationship to have. The ability for each person to experience their own feelings without needing to pacify their partner can be the difference between a healthy relationship and a destructive one. A similar dynamic can be found in team sports where someone is leaving their own position to cover for a teammate. This rarely works, because each person’s role is defined. Similarly, in a relationship, if you try to cover for your partner, neither of your roles truly gets addressed, and you impair both of your abilities to address your own needs. My advice – don’t leave your position. Don’t expect the other person to cover for you and manage your emotions, and don’t return the favor.

5. Displays of “loving” jealousy
This one is all about power, control and trust. That feeling of anxiety that leads to dramatic outward acts is all about trying to control the other person and manipulating them to stay in the relationship to make you feel safe. However, is that really the relationship that you want? Trusting the other person is integral in a relationship, and it’s impossible to build if that person does not have the freedom to make their own decisions about how to act outside of the relationship. If they flirt with someone else, but it goes no further, and they bring that increased sexual energy into the realtionship, is that really such a bad thing?

6. Buying the solutions to relationship problems
Most of us hate to fight. We do it, quite often, but that conflict kicks up many emotions and brings many to an uneasy emotional state. So, we try to sweep issues under the rug. The problem? Issues swept under aren’t resolve, and will continue to come back with a vengence, only get added resentments for sweeping them under in the first place. It’s kind of like teammates who are fighting, and then go to the press to air their differences. Rarely works, and the outward flash to others doesn’t really convince anyone that everything is ok, and probably makes things worse. The solution: keep it in the lockerroom. Rather than buy your partner’s affection for some outward show, address the issue behind closed doors. Address it, resolve it, shakes hands (or hug/kiss – benefit of the relationship and not a sports teammate), and move on.

Competitive Liberty

As I stare up at explosions of fireworks booming overhead while millions of Americans celebrate the birth of our country, I consider the foundations of what has made America the country it is today, and in part what values have influenced me as a therapist. I have lived in this country as a natural citizen in the post-Vietnam, post-industrial revolution, post-modernism era which has culminated the later part of the 20th century and early 21st century. I have witnessed much of what has made America one of the most unique political powers in the history of humanity; a relatively new country who has become influential in their cultural and political byproducts in only a few hundred years based on principles of democracy, freedoms and liberty.

Of course, being a systemic thinker, I wonder how these ideas influence our behaviors and our mindsets in much smaller systems that don’t incorporate national foreign and domestic policies . Our families and our selves often incorporate these principles in our daily actions. And, what’s more, is that they don’t often conform to what we traditionally view is a healthy family system. If parents speak of giving their children liberties and freedoms to explore and create, they are often viewed as Liberalists who cannot control their offspring. How concepts of freedom and liberty influences marital  relationships is a topic I have covered in other posts, and I’m sure will continue to be covered in future discussions.

Strangely, these can be seen as very antiquated views which propelled our country to gain its independence initially, and one which influences children today as they become adults as seek their own autonomy and freedom. As children launch from the home, they seek many of the same things which our country sought in its initial stages – support from their homeland when starting out and eventual distinction from their country (or family) of origin. Issues of control continue to play out in adolescence where the concept of freedom for the teenager is balanced with a parents concern that their behaviors might be dangerous, risky, or embarrassing.

Perhaps in this way we may learn from our history. If England had addressed the colonies as adolescents preparing to launch into their own national identity, we may find ways of herding our own teens into their own independent adult lives. Giving them a voice in matters concerning them may help to foster both independence and decision-making. And avoid a Boston Tea Party 🙂 Allowing them measured autonomy while still acknowledging that their adult status is not quite there yet, and they don’t require the strains that are involved in adult responsibilities. In this way, we may not push our children out of the door before they are ready, or keep them dependent upon adults until they are in their mid-20’s, and are forced into their own post-revolution existence, needing to find ways of conducting their adulthood by necessity, and without our nurturing support.