What happens when healthy rivalry tips over into something more intense?
We all know a 'power couple'. Relationships where both parties are so ridiculously successful that it would be impossible to pick who’s doing better. Maybe you’re part of one. But when two high-achieving perfectionists get together, the rivalry can take its toll. So what happens when you’re suffering competitive stress?
When Jo, 30, from Surrey, first met her boyfriend Tom, 25, on Twitter, she was impressed by how ambitious and successful he was. ‘Even though he was five years younger than me, he had a high-flying career in PR that he was passionate about. I like my job at a healthcare charity, but it’s not my dream career, so meeting Tom made me realise that I had to up my game. Looking back, I think meeting Tom was the push I needed to start my own business as a wedding photographer.’
But Jo having a full-time job while setting up another company took its toll on the relationship. ‘In the summer, I was shooting a wedding every weekend – I did 17 last year – and on evenings after work I’d be doing the editing and admin that comes with running your own business.
I remember Tom said to me, “I feel like I have to be scheduled into your life.” The need to be as successful as him definitely put a strain on our relationship.’
Her business is now thriving, but Jo admits that when Tom has professional success, it can still niggle. ‘He got a big promotion before Christmas and, while I was happy for him, it did make me jealous,’ she confesses. ‘He earns a lot more than me and is doing so brilliantly that I feel like I need to up my game constantly. I know it may not be healthy to feel this way.’
Tom’s not immune to Jo’s successes either. ‘She’s already on the property ladder and that’s inspired me to save up so we can buy a place together.’ He feels their rivalry makes him more productive. ‘I’ve always been a perfectionist and competition spurs me on,’ he says.
Tom and Jo’s constant need to win can sometimes manifest in unusual ways. ‘We went to play mini-golf with my colleagues and Jo and I were on different teams,’ says Tom. ‘We ended up being the highest scoring players and walked out of there with everyone shouting, “Hashtag power couple!” at us. It was pretty funny.’
‘Many people say, “Oh, I never compete with my partner,’” says integrative psychotherapist Hilda Burke. ‘But all couples compete on some level, even if it’s unconscious. Who’s more successful at work? Who has more friends? Who’s the better parent? Almost anything that matters can become a source of rivalry.’
For Anne-Claire, 28, from Paris, and her boyfriend Ben, 30, from Leeds, their competitive natures come out at the gym. ‘Ben is really into running and, even though I hated it, I’d go for runs with him and try to keep up,’ says Anne-Claire. ‘After he did a few half-marathons, I signed up for one. But after one training run I realised I just couldn’t do it. Now I focus my energies on the pool – I can’t let him win there. A few years ago I signed us up for dance lessons, but Ben was better than me so I’d spend hours on YouTube learning the steps to try and out-do him.’
Anne-Claire and Ben work in market research and being in the same industry can make it all too easy to benchmark their career progression against each other. ‘Anne’s climbed the ladder quicker than me,’ says Ben. ‘She’s moved companies now, but I would’ve found it frustrating if she’d overtaken me while we worked for the same firm. Luckily, she’s a couple of years younger and I’m more experienced, so I’ll always have that safety net.’
Meanwhile, Anne-Claire says she feels the urge to out-earn Ben. ‘I’ll see Ben reading a book on market research and I’ll make sure I read it,’ she says. ‘And if he comes up with a theory about work, I’ll find a way of disproving it. I’ve always been like this. It can be tiring, but it’s also fun to spur each other on to be the best.’
For some couples, being competitive isn’t about vying to be the best; it’s about who’s enduring the worst. ‘It’s common for couples to compete over who’s under the most stress or who’s got the most demanding job,’ says anger-management expert Julian Hall. ‘This one-upmanship happens when people aren’t having their needs met – it’s a cry for attention. It’s a common feeling when both parties are fighting to be at the top professionally.’
But what should you do if you feel like your healthy competitive spirit has tipped over into something more damaging? ‘Work through a competitive relationship by acknowledging that one partner may outshine the other periodically, and remind yourself that difference is healthy,’ says Hilda Burke. ‘Often, feeling competitive stems from insecurity. If there’s something you feel jealous of, it might be something you’re unhappy with in yourself, so focus your energies
on working on that.’
At the moment, both couples say that being competitive has spurred them on to achieve more. ‘Tom and I feel like you should be with someone who makes you be the best you can be,’ says Jo. And dating an overachiever has its benefits. ‘We compete over who can organise the most interesting dates, whereas a lot of couples I know just sit in and watch Netflix.’
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