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Marriage as a Competitive Sport

Marriage and CompetitionEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Susan Mallery.  I’m excited to help Susan kick-off a guest writing tour on a series of relationship and marriage sites in support of her latest novel (details below).

Susan is a best-selling romance/fiction writer and a strong supporter of marriage and our efforts here at Engaged Marriage.  Please welcome her and her fans to our community!

Everyone’s gone to dinner with a couple who just don’t seem to like each other.

As you fidget uncomfortably, Mr. Mean complains that his wife washed a red sweater with the whites, then he flashes his pink socks. Mrs. Mean snaps back that if he worked harder, they could afford new socks. They pretend the character slams are all in good fun, but you can hear the vein of bitterness beneath their words.

Worse, you can feel that bitter energy in the room. Spend time with Mr. and Mrs. Mean, and your soul shrivels a little more with every minute.

What Happened to This Couple?

The Means didn’t start out that way. Like most couples, they were giddily in love on their wedding day. So where did they go wrong?

Somewhere along the way, marriage became a competitive sport for this couple. He forgets her birthday, so she “forgets” his on purpose to teach him a lesson. He makes dinner, then figures it’s her job to do the dishes alone, even though he knows she had a tough day at work. She fails to fill up the car, so he deliberately leaves the toilet seat up, which he knows drives her crazy… and then she withholds sex.

They each focus on what their partner is not doing or not giving to them, and they try to balance the scales through retribution or neglect. Couples get into a downward spiral by deducting a point for every slight, intentional or accidental.

Then begins the name calling or a more subtle form of undercutting, such as making the other look foolish in front of their friends. One dig here, another there, and eventually all that acid causes love to erode away.

Let the Games Begin!

Looking at marriage as a competition is not the problem; the problem is the method of keeping score. We need to apply new math. Take the “subtract” key off the calculator, and marriage becomes a fun, positive game of one-upsmanship.

Here’s how the score keeping works:

  • Undesirable behaviors: 0 points

He folded the towels wrong, even though she’s taught him the “right” way several times. Under the old rules of score keeping, she would chastise him. Under the new rules, this is not a big deal. Zero points. She can refold the towels if it’s important to her, or she can start folding towels his way. It’s not worth wasting any negative energy on such trivial matters. Remember, no subtracting!

  • Desirable behaviors: 1 point

Each partner should be on the lookout at all times for opportunities to award and reward – award points, and reward the effort to earn those points. The reward can be as simple as a warm smile or a kiss on the cheek, or as elaborate as one wants to make it. The point is to notice the good things your spouse does for you, and then try to top them. It couldn’t be simpler. Try to do more for your spouse than your spouse does for you.

In other words, try to ignore everything you don’t like and focus on everything you do like about the wonderful person you married. When you stop deducting points for perceived wrongs, everybody wins the Marriage Game!

Please read Susan’s opening comment below and join in the conversation!

Photo by no lurvin here.

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Susan MallerySusan Mallery knows a thing or two about love that lasts forever. As the New York Times bestselling author of funny, sexy romance and women’s fiction novels, Susan believes that happy endings are possible for couples who treat each other with love and respect, and who approach life with a sense of humor. Visit Susan online at www.susanmallery.com.

Her latest book, Chasing Perfect, is the first book of her new series of Fool’s Gold romances. Fool’s Gold is a charming California wine country town. The town has everything – breathtaking scenery, tree-lined streets, world-class resorts, friendly neighbors… Everything, that is, except enough men. Fool’s Gold is suffering from a man shortage, and no one knows why. Go to www.foolsgoldca.com to read a free excerpt, meet the people, send an e-postcard, and download some fabulous freebies such as a puppet knitting pattern and a cookbook filled with delicious family recipes.

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About Dustin

Dustin Riechmann created Engaged Marriage to help other married couples live a life they love (especially) when they feel too busy to make it happen. He has many passions, including sharing ways to enjoy an awesome marriage in 15 minutes a day, but his heart belongs with his wife Bethany and their three young kids.

Comments

  1. Good morning, everyone! Thank you, Dustin, for the warm welcome! I am, indeed, a strong supporter of Engaged Marriage. I stumbled on this site recently, and I love it! I love the practical advice that real people can use. Love exists, and it can last forever, but staying engaged with your spouse is essential.

    I look forward to responding to your comments today. Tell me, have you ever found yourself getting into a competition with your spouse or significant other? What was it about? How did it start? Is it still going on? If yes, has it escalated? If not, how did you manage to stop the competition?

    I’ll be in and out all day. Chasing Perfect, my new book, is being released today, and I’ve started my book tour in Memphis. I have three TV interviews before noon (!), and then I’ll be signing books from 7-9 this evening at the Barnes & Noble in Wolfchase Galleria. If you’re in the Memphis area, please come say hi!

    If you’re interested, you should be able to watch my first interview live at 8:45 am Central time at http://www.myfoxmemphis.com/generic/video/streaming_1/Live_Stream_1 Debuting my new straight hair on TV for the first time! :)

    • Thank you again for joining us, Susan! I look forward to watching a great conversation unfold here in the comments.

      Best of luck to you with “Chasing Perfect” as I’m sure you have another hit on your hands! :)

  2. I can think of one especially petty competition in our marriage lately. My wife has a habit of leaving our closet light on, and it seems like she *always* does it, even though I’m sure that’s an exaggeration. For the past few weeks, I made it a point to tell her when she did it and even tease her about it. After a while, she started to take offense to me pestering her about something so trivial.

    I finally realized how childish I was being and ended the competition over the closet light. Now I just turn it off whenever I notice it without saying a word. This is certainly a minor issue, but I can tell you that the score keeping and taunting was making it get out of control!

    • Yes, Dustin! That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. By choosing to stop letting yourself get annoyed and just turn off the light, you’re defusing the situation. We have to step back and ask ourselves whether something is worth an argument. The answer to that question is almost always no.

      When we get married, “we two” don’t really ever become “one.” We are partners in life, but we will always remain two individuals living together, and there will always be little moments of friction. But we can keep that frictional spark from becoming a forest fire by learning to let things go.

  3. I am a behaviorist by training, and I definitely agree that positive reinforcement for desired behaviors works MUCH better than punishing for bad behaviors
    .-= Laura´s last blog ..Refinance Complete! =-.

    • Yes, addition is good. Subtraction is bad. Stop subtracting points! Stop punishing your mate when you’re annoyed. Learn to let it go, and praise wildly when he or she does something you love.

      Thanks for stopping by, Laura!

      • Another thing is you drain the lifeblood out of your spouse every time you are critical of her or him. Remember the emotional bank account that always needs to be full to overflowing. Nice article Susan.

        • That’s a great way of putting it, Gerry. And marriage should always be our safe place. When we come home, we should know that it’s to a person who is our greatest cheerleader.

    • I don’t share your training, Laura, but my experience with my wife and our two little ones has definitely taught me this lesson!

  4. Nice post! You’re basically saying, don’t treat your spouse like a child. As a person with children, I know with kids that I have to constantly repeat myself and, yes, punish once in a while. That is no way to treat a spouse, though! You don’t want that dynamic; it’s so destructive.

    You do need to tell your spouse what you like rather than stew about things. They aren’t mind-readers, after all, eh? And, they really shouldn’t take you saying what you like as criticism if you don’t go on to harp on it. Then, once they know, if they don’t follow through it’s either because a)they genuinely disagree and their way is just about as good as “your way”, b) you are asking them to take on a behavior that is a difficult habit or they are not ready to make the time/effort for/prioritize mentally, or c) they are just forgetful without some kind of memory device to help them remember to do that thing “your way”. The one reason we get angry about is the most irrational thing to assume first–d) you don’t do it my way because you don’t like me/respect me/think what I feel is important.

    In my marriage, I sure hope all of our affronts are in the first three categories! And in each of those cases, it is very possible to just let it go, as you wisely advise.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Wendy! You’re right, there is a sort of parent/child dynamic to a lot of spousal arguments. Parents set the rules. But when we marry, we are joined in an equal partnership with another individual who has just as much right as we do to set the “rules” in the home. We need to remember that their way is almost always as valid as our way. In some cases, one spouse might see a behavior that causes real danger – such as overspending on the credit card. In that case, we need to try to take the blame and emotion out of it and have a rational conversation. The way we approach a discussion like this can take the “argue” out of the argument so that we can come to an agreement together. Much better!

    • I still think you should be the main writer on this site, Wendy. ;)

  5. Esther @Purpose Passion Purity says:

    Amen Susan! I totally agree with your way of thinking. In fact, I recently wrote a series on my blog http://www.purposepassionpurity.com about nagging and the ill effects it has on a relationship. I used the example of the towels too, because to me it is such a trivial thing that historically has caused so much grief for so many couples! It`s amazing the little things we do and say that bring strife to our marriages.

    I`ve been married for 2 years now, and I learned early on (out of sheer necessity!) that if I wanted a happy marriage then I had to be willing to compromise on the areas I thought were so important (ie:folding towels, doing dishes, making the bed…). And what a blessing! Marriage is truly a JOY when you can simply enjoy your spouse, forgive them for their bad habits, and encourage them on a regular basis :)

    Thanks for sharing your pearls of wisdom…I look forward to reading the dialogue here! Enjoy your book tour!
    .-= Esther @Purpose Passion Purity´s last blog ..Success Story: My 1st ever Ultimate Blog Party! =-.

    • Hi, Esther! You’re so smart to start off your marriage on the right foot. And really, when we think of our spouse’s “bad habits,” they’re often not bad habits at all, just a different way of doing things. Learn to let go of those little things early, and you’re setting yourself up for a happy marriage. You stop that downward spiral before it starts, which is so much easier than going back to heal wounds.

    • My wife’s willingness to compromise has been a key to the happiness in our marriage…I certainly don’t do everything the way she prefers, but we’ve learned to love our little differences rather than resist them. :)

  6. This post is sad but true. In particular children change the equation, and especially children with additional challenges. Whether we like it or not we can unintentionally, sometimes even intentionally, become co-dependent. That is our lives are ruled by someone else’s problem, in this case it could even by a child with behavioural, physical or other problems.

    No one could fault the parent’s as they are doing the best they can, and in the case of a child, it is so much more powerful than the usual dependent behaviours (working too hard, substance abuse, shopping, being right…).

    The answer is to ensure not to continue down a negative spiral as mentioned in this post but top up each other’s love tanks. I highly recommend ‘The Five Love Languages’ by Gary Chapman. Then live your life. If you truly live your life which also includes honouring your spouse by ensuring they feel loved, problems can be reduced and solutions come into view.

    Choose to really live your life and love those closest to you in positive ways.

    Wishing you love!
    .-= Cathy J´s last blog ..Guy Magnet: Step 4 Have a Clear Vision Then Take Action Daily =-.

    • “Top up each other’s love tanks” reminds me of Gerry’s comment about the emotional bank account. Both great ways of looking at it. Addition always, not subtraction. I believe that very strongly.

      I agree that having children – whether with special needs or not – can cause strain on the marriage because each parent loves the child and wants the best for him or her. And when parents disagree on what exactly IS best for this child they both love, arguments often ensue. So it’s more important than ever to remember that your spouse’s beliefs are just as valid as yours, and to learn to let go of some of your ideas for the way life “should” be lived.

    • Thank you so much for your great insights, Cathy! I totally agree with your advice, and I give a resounding second to your recommendation of The Five Love Languages. I’ll be reviewing that great book here soon!

  7. I love this idea that you can choose to compete either by addition or subtraction. One builds the other tears down. My wife and I make every effort to let go of the petty stuff, mostly with success. Once in a while something will come out and she’ll say, “why didn’t you tell me before? I’m happy to do it your way.” So there is a balancing act to speaking the truth and just letting stuff slide, at least in our relationship. I suppose we both take the attitude that if it matters to you, it matters to me.

    You are so right that expressing appreciation builds positive momentum in the atmosphere of the relationship like little else can. Thanks for the reminder!
    .-= Scott´s last blog ..Do You KNOW? =-.

    • Thanks, Scott! I definitely agree with your statement about balancing the need to express something vs. just letting it slide. It seems the longer I am married, the better I get at finding that healthy balance. For me, that usually means letting more things slide (like the light switch example in my earlier comment). :)

    • I love that, Scott! “I’m happy to do it your way.” You’re so right – often what is a petty annoyance to one partner means nothing at all to the other partner, so he or she is willing to change a way of doing things without any argument at all. Great point!

  8. Michelle says:

    You guys are doing a great job of affirming each other and patting each other on the back. I’m truly happy for you that you and your spouses are reasonable individuals and that you are willing to change when you see the need. However, there are just some people who do not want to get along, and the only time that they are happy is when they have done their best to make their spouse miserable. If you don’t think these people exist, then ask the woman who thought that every bad marriage was the fault of the wife, until her good husband died and she remarried to one that was not nearly so good and did not want to become good. The woman was the same, but she could not make a good marriage by herself. She finally kicked him out. Perhaps it was God’s plan to make her a little more compassionate on others who are suffering in a bad relationship … and less judgemental. Your advice is great for ‘reasonable’ individuals (I wish that were everyone) but it only adds guilt on top of guilt, false hope, and bitter diappointment for the rest of those who are faithful, but stuck in a bad relationship.

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