From a very early age, men are raised to compete, to experience themselves and others as competitors (or potential competitors), and this competitive mindset has dramatic implications for how men relate to their spouses/partners.
The competitive mindset (in all its permutations) psychologically positions men outside of their relationship and above their spouse/partner, a relational stance that undermines emotional intimacy and interferes with emotional fulfillment. This competitive mindset is deeply ingrained in the collective psyches of many men (even men who don’t endorse competitiveness as a desirable trait).
Men, Intimacy and Marriage: How the Competitive Mindset Undermines Relationships
Competitors have two options: Winning or losing. You either celebrate as the victor or lower your head as the loser; you dominate or submit–there is no room for ambiguity, uncertainty or vulnerability. This severely limiting way of relating shows up over and over again in marriage and intimate relationships—for instance, it’s not uncommon for some men to feel inadequate and ashamed if their wives/partners make more money than them.
The result of this competitive way-of-being is to feel superior (above or “better-than”) or inferior (below or “less-than”). If the competitor loses (fails to make his wife or partner happy, make enough money, “measure up” to her friends’ husbands, etc.), his tendency is to believe it’s either because he didn’t try hard enough or wasn’t good enough—the end result is a pronounced sense of failure.
The socialization of competitiveness creates an unconscious motivation for men to avoid the experiences of humiliation and self-abasement that are so closely associated with losing/failing—the paradox is that the competitive drive and the attempts to avoid humiliation often undermine the very relationship men are trying to sustain.
It may seem like the victor is in an enviable position; and considered solely from the mindset of competitiveness, being “better than” is indeed preferable. But this position comes at a cost: The victor cannot relax, he must be in constant motion in order to prove himself and his worth. His self-esteem depends on winning, on being superior, on having more of—the litmus test for success/winning is to continuously compare himself to others.
The burden of competitiveness is ruthless and indefatigable. Victors rarely have peace of mind for very long. They see threats all around them, everyone is a potential foe and holds a place on a long list of competitors who might be stronger, smarter, funnier, richer, better-looking, and generally more successful as husbands and fathers… It’s easy to feel threatened and insecure when you relate from the mindset of a competitor.
The Competitive Male-Husband/Partner: A Recipe for Marital/Relationship Failure
Ironically, men instilled with a competitive mindset have internalized a deep-seated fear that they aren’t good enough, that they are somehow inadequate and therefore must continuously prove themselves and their worth or be exposed as failures and left to drown in humiliation.
These men are hyper-aware that their attempts to please their spouses/partners are missing the mark, each spousal complaint a singeing message of failure. At some level, men know that they’re floundering when it comes to the evolving, 21st century standards of being a husband (where the new standards of emotional connection and openness conflict with the old standards of stoicism and competitiveness).
But what isn’t clear to many men is how their attempted solutions (solutions that often stem from a competitive way of relating) add fuel to the marital/relationship problems they are trying to extinguish.
Why does a competitive mindset fall short when it comes to love, marriage and intimacy?
The competitive mindset (whether transient, unacknowledged or eagerly embraced) undermines the essential skills needed for mutuality and for fulfilling emotional and physical intimacy.
Men must now adapt by raising their mindfulness of all the ways in which their competitive way of relating robs them–as well as their partners–of the gifts that come with intimate relationships.
Some of the tools needed for this non-competitive adaptation to occur: Empathy; compassion; deep listening; emotional sharing and connection; the ability to stay emotionally present (even in the face of difficult emotions) without moving into solution-focused forms of relating (“Why don’t you tell her…”; “Have you tried…?”).
I know it’s easier said than done, but making an ongoing, conscious effort to monitor how even subtle competitiveness can undermine mutuality and intimacy is an essential step for all men who are ready to co-create a fulfilling marriage/relationship.
Wishing you and relationship all the best!
Dr. Rich Nicastro