When You Can’t Stop Competing With Your Spouse

Couples are supposed to operate as a team, but sometimes they compete instead. It’s often a sign of envy, which can fester and create resentments.

By
Elizabeth Bernstein

When Fila and Jason Antwine sat down to play Monopoly a while back with their young son, they had a goal in mind: to show their child how to have fun and compete while being a good sport. Then they forgot he was there.

Early on, Ms. Antwine built several hotels on her properties. “You are going to be devastated!” she told her husband. After buying the railroads, she threw her fake cash in his face: “I am going to make it rain money!”

Mr. Antwine then purchased Park Place and Boardwalk. “You are going down now,” he taunted back. When his wife landed in jail, he shouted in her face: “Game over!”

Spouses are supposed to operate as a team. But sometimes they compete instead.

Who do the kids like more? Who has better friends, makes a tastier pizza, lost more weight on the diet, can do more burpees at the gym? The opportunities for comparison are endless. The Antwines, who describe themselves as “headstrong and Type A,” say they have always competed with each other—over everything from whose business is doing better to who did more repetitions weightlifting in the gym.

Marriage therapists say that most often when spouses compete it’s about work. Many couples met in the office or graduate school and are in the same field. Even when they are not, work provides clear measures of success—promotions, raises, awards—that provide easy opportunities for comparison.

Often, the emotion underlying competition is envy, which can fester and create resentments in a relationship. Envy is a feeling of discontent, inferiority and sometimes even hostility that we feel when someone has something we want but can’t immediately have. Unlike jealousy, which typically is more intense and includes a third person—we fear we will lose someone or something to a competitor—envy involves just two people: the envious and the envied.

Spouses may have a particularly hard time admitting to feeling envious, says Richard Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky who has studied the emotion for 30 years, because it means you are essentially admitting to feeling inferior or lacking in some way. “You’re not supposed to envy your loved one—that is the undermining of the very special love you are supposed to have for your spouse,” he says. “On the contrary, you are supposed to feel good about your spouse’s success.”

And yet research shows we are most envious of those who are close to us, says Abraham Tesser, distinguished research professor emeritus at the University of Georgia, who is known for developing a psychological theory of envy called the “self-evaluation maintenance model.” It holds that when you are in a close relationship with another person, their success has an implication for you. You might feel proud. Or envious. The result depends on how much you want what they have now. And the closer you are, the more competitive you are likely to be.

“If a stranger wins a big science prize, it’s nice to know that the work was done, but there is nothing personal in it,” Dr. Tesser says. “But if it’s your spouse, you think: ‘What happened to me?’ You have some negative self-evaluation.”

Often, spouses mask their envy—and it turns into resentment. (“You would never have gotten that promotion if I didn’t take care of the kids every night so you could work late.”) The solution, Dr. Tesser says, is for partners to differentiate, or find distinct things they are particularly good at doing. You can also use your envy to motivate you. “If your spouse is doing well, you might need to invest more time in what you are doing,” he says.

After their Monopoly battle, Mr. Antwine asked his wife to talk. “I think you take these games too seriously,” he told her. “What’s going on?”

Ms. Antwine says she had been feeling envious and resentful, as she did when their son seemed more excited to hang out with his dad, even though she did most of the child care. Mr. Antwine then admitted to having taunted her about how their son preferred him. “It’s easy to boast when you’re winning,” he says.

Ms. Antwine had quit her job at New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to work full time to launch a coaching business, but it was struggling. Meanwhile her husband, who was working full time as a mailman for the U.S. Postal Service, had also created a lucrative online company selling T-shirts and hats in his spare time. “I was really frustrated because it seemed like I was working hard and wasn’t making any money, and he was just casually succeeding,” says Ms. Antwine, a 39-year-old relationship coach for women who lives in Valley Stream, N.Y. “It felt like I wasn’t contributing to the household like he was and that this was a competition and he was indeed winning.”

This competition was causing a lot of arguing, and the couple talked about that. Mr. Antwine admitted that sometimes when he felt unappreciated by his wife, he would work a little harder just to get noticed. And he reassured her that she was doing more than enough. “I always tell her: ‘We contribute in different ways; you contribute in ways around the house that are just as beneficial as me contributing financially,’” says Mr. Antwine, 36, who now owns an online jewelry retailer.

The spouses devised a plan: They would each focus on what they were good at and work as a team. Mr. Antwine is better at time management, budgeting and organization, so he took on those roles in both the family and their two businesses. “He helped me structure my day, and this helped me become more efficient and successful,” says Ms. Antwine. And Ms. Antwine is better at seeing the big picture, so she helps her husband identify his next projects and lets him know when he needs to take a vacation so he doesn’t burn out.

The Monopoly game was several years ago, and since then the couple says they have argued much less. “We’re still strong personalities, but we don’t let it get to a point where the problem becomes serious,” says Ms. Antwine.

But game night is still heated. Recently, while the family was playing UNO, the couple’s 5-year-old daughter told her 12-year-old brother: “Bro, you are going down!” “A little trash-talking is left because it’s fun,” says Ms. Antwine. “But we don’t let it get hurtful. And now we never let it leave that space.”

DEALING WITH ENVY

Envy between spouses can wreak havoc on a marriage. Here’s some advice on what to do if you find yourself in this cycle.

Talk about it. It’s hard to admit to being envious. And you don’t want to accuse your spouse of it. But you can say: “Honey, what is going on?” The envious partner can explain that he feels neglected or insecure. And if you suspect your spouse may be envious, you can be proactive by asking about his feelings. “I just got this promotion. How do you feel about this? Is there anything you need?” Couples should soothe each other all the time, says Susan Orenstein, a psychologist in Cary, N.C., who specializes in relationship issues.

Appreciate your partner. If you are pursuing a goal and your spouse is supporting you, don’t take the cheerleading for granted. Let your partner know you couldn’t do it alone. And if you are the envious partner, remember that your spouse’s success benefits you, too.

Give reassurance. Envy often means people feel inferior. Recognize your partner’s vulnerability. If you are the envious spouse, explain how you feel: “I know you just ran a marathon. But I gained 30 pounds having the baby and feel bad about myself.” If you are the envied spouse, give reassurance: “I love you just the way you are.”

Find different areas to shine. Research shows that when people in a relationship do this, they are less envious of each other and are less likely to feel inferior, says Abraham Tesser, distinguished research professor emeritus at the University of Georgia. Maybe one spouse is good at writing, while the other is good at budgeting. Even when partners work in the same field, there are ways to differentiate their talents, Dr. Tesser says.

Continue to shine. Don’t hold back if you are the envied spouse. That will cause resentment, says Dr. Orenstein. But remember to be sensitive to your partner’s feelings and needs. And be sure that what works for you works for both of you.

Turn envy into inspiration. If your partner just ran a marathon, and you’re feeling inadequate, figure out what you want to do and go for it. Pay attention to how your partner met her goals and try to emulate that.

Take turns. First you talk about your success, then your partner talks about hers. “Couples should think of themselves as a team,” says Dr. Orenstein.