03/18/2015 09:26 am ET Updated May 17, 2015

The Competitive Marriage

In counseling, I often see a dynamic that I call The Competitive Marriage.  It arises very frequently in couples who are parenting small children, and especially when one or both partners are not satisfied with their career choices (whether their outside-the-home job or being a stay-at-home parent). In this relationship, both partners feel that their lives are extremely stressful, and both are trying to be good spouses and parents (if there are kids involved).  There is a constant, often open, competition over two main issues:
  1. Who is trying harder
  2. Whose life is more stressful.

In some couples with kids, the stay-at-home parent envies the other partner for a seemingly easier, more glamorous lifestyle.  In other relationships, one parent castigates the other for being "the fun parent."  In couples without kids, this dynamic can still be prevalent, in terms of whose career is more difficult or important, which partner is more devoted to the relationship, which partner gets to spend more time outside the home or with friends, and any other topic.

Both partners in the couple usually have a fantasy of their partner turning to them and saying, "You're right!  You do have it harder than I do, and I am grateful for all that you do." Like suggestion #2 in this article (which applies for both genders).  If this were to happen, it would certainly help one partner feel more validated, but it's unlikely to happen, since both partners are waiting for the other person to make this declaration first.

The inverse of this dynamic is seen in older and/or happier couples, where each person goes out of their way to say how much more difficult their partner's life is than their own, and how appreciative they are for all that their partner does.  Everyone has heard and envied the man with an extremely busy, hectic job that extols his wife's ability to manage the children at home, or the wife who does all the childcare praise her husband for financially supporting her enjoyable stay at home life.  These people are positive thinkers, and their marriages will likely benefit from their ability to focus on their partner's positive characteristics and also their worldview that they are not complete without their partner's unique contribution (here, the ability to do full time childcare or the ability to have a stressful job outside the home).

Nobody wants to be married to someone who can do everything well.  The idea is to be in a relationship where each person fills a unique role, and brings something to the table that the other partner lacks.  So, think right now of 5 things that your partner does better than you do, areas in which you are generally weaker.  Here are some suggestions: patience, creativity, stability, excitement, energy, organization, focus, passion, wit, physical strength, emotional strength.  Which of these areas is not your strong suit, and which does your partner do better than you?  Write your partner an email where you list these five things and thank him or her for filling in these areas of life for you and your family.  This exercise in gratitude and appreciation, if done often enough, and casually and verbally throughout your day, can jolt your marriage off an unhappy, competitive track.

Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist That Says My Husband Is More Patient Than I Am!

For more, visit Dr. Rodman at Dr. Psych Mom, on Facebook, and on Twitter @DrPsychMom.