Competitiveness between human beings is programmed into our brains as part of our survival instinct. Competition can be a healthy and useful part of our lives in certain circumstances, but not when it occurs between family members. Parents in a mentally healthy family work to minimize the natural competition that exists between siblings. In an unhealthy environment, not only is competition between the children allowed and sometimes even encouraged, but the parents are often competing with each other and their children, as well.
The feelings associated with a family of origin that allows or encourages unhealthy competition within the family fuel competition dramas in a marriage. These unmetabolized feelings usually include anger, shame, abandonment, fear, helplessness, hopelessness, inadequacy, hurt, and sadness. A family with an atmosphere of determining “winners” and “losers” cannot possibly be safe, so there is an overwhelming sense of emotional danger in intimate relationships that must include competition dramas in order to bring these feelings to the surface.
In essence, no matter what the subject of a conflict is, there are two conscious goals in these types of dramas: 1) to determine who is “right” and who is “wrong”; and 2) to determine which partner is a “good” person and which is a “bad” person. Obviously the criteria for these labels have been determined by the definitions within the family of origin about which behaviors get seen as “right” and “good”. Children are looking to their parents to help them feel good about themselves; that cannot possibly happen in a competitive family in which there is substantial anxiety about whether one can “win” one of the desired labels.
This type of anxiety is at its highest in families where one or more children are allowed to get in the middle of a parental competition. Highly confusing feelings get loaded into the nonconscious because of the attribution of inappropriate power to a child and the severe limitations to the child’s opportunity to get appropriate attention and nurturance from both parents. Freudian theory identified the numerous pitfalls of this oedipal triangle a century ago.
Couples choose partners whose competition environment in their families of origin closely resembles their own. Then the battles ensue to determine the winner, with all of the emotions associated with the fear of being the loser pushing to be metabolized. The therapist has the challenging task of helping the couple focus on these feelings, rather than obsessing on determining the winner. One of the major hurdles in this process is that establishing safety in the treatment requires giving up the competition, which feels like agreeing to be the loser. The skilled therapist sets the stage for a partner who is struggling with feeling like the loser to explore the deeper meanings and losses associated with this struggle. Couples who are ready for this exploration learn to focus their attention on the pain surrounding the competitiveness in their families of origin, rather than on competitions between them in the present.