Looking to boost the passion between you and your partner? Experts say you should raise the stakes

By Nicole Pajer
November 12, 2020 03:52 PM
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Athletes face off at sporting events. Pro gamers take on other players. And friends may make an occasional congenial wager. Should humans’ natural love of competition extend to their romantic lives, too? Some experts say yes.

Canwen Xu, in-house dating expert and content strategist at New York-based dating app iris, says some healthy competition can be great between partners because it “spices things up.”

“Adding some competition can make you more excited about your significant other, especially if you’ve been together a long time,” she says. An added bonus: competition can also motivate you to complete productive tasks, like exercising, reading, or accomplish some other goal that you both have.

Relationship expert and licensed therapist Jaime Bronstein notes that competition can encourage playfulness (which is linked to high relationship satisfaction) and thus lead to bonding and getting closer physically and emotionally. “Any healthy competition or ‘game’ offers the couple an opportunity to spend time together and focus on one another,” she explains.

Bree Jenkins, a licensed marriage and family therapist and dating coach, says competitiveness can even reignite a flame that’s waning.

“A little competition in the right areas can keep the passion, novelty, and fun in your relationship,” she explains, noting that long-term, stable relationships are vulnerable to boredom and can decrease in passion over time: “One way to combat that is to add some healthy competition in the dynamic.”

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Competing can foster passion

Partnering up in a competitive environment has been linked to a more passionate relationship. A 2018 Japanese study compared couples in the USA and Japan and found that because of the American focus on personal achievement and success, U.S. couples rated higher in levels of passion – often out of a competitive desire to favorably compare to possible romantic rivals.

The study’s lead researcher, Masaki Yuki, says that in comparison to their Japanese counterparts, Americans live in an environment with “higher relational mobility,” which offers people greater freedom to choose romantic partners. That means “people can leave relationships for better ones if they are not satisfied,” he says. “People are constantly faced with the risk of losing one's partner because there are always competitors who could steal your partner.”

Credit: Summer Rae

Competition in action

Dancing with the Stars lovebirds Jenna Johnson and Val Chmerkovskiy (above) are each other’s No. 1 fans when it comes to their competition on the show, but in their romantic relationship, Chmerkovskiy says they’re “insanely competitive,” constantly “challenging each other to be the best version of themselves every single day.”

Says Johnson, “We are both Aries and alphas so there is a lot of fiery passion in our relationship. You never want to play a card or board game against us. It gets pretty intense!”

Another professionally competitive guy, Denver Broncos all-time leading rusher Terrell Davis, says he and his wife Tamiko compete in everything. “Little things like driving, video games, sports - there’s always a little competition and we enjoy it,” he says, joking that they each “like to have bragging rights.”

Davis, who recently launched the CDB performance beverage Defy, says competition keeps his relationship interesting: “You have the opportunity to challenge each other regularly; things are never stagnant and it feels like you get to learn new things about your partner along the way.”

The one possible pitfall: Two competitive people may be more prone to losing badly. “You’re going to have arguments if you are playing to win. If there’s anything she’s learned about me it’s that I don’t like losing,” he says.

Credit: Chef Spike Mendelsohn

Top Chef alumnus Spike Mendelsohn and his wife Cody (above) definitely enjoy some friendly competition in the kitchen. "She’s vegan and I am very much a flexitarian so we are constantly competing for who makes the more delicious meals,” Mendelsohn says.

In fact, the couple has full-on cook-offs. “The other night, we had a pasta competition. I made clam linguine and she made bucatini with vegan tomato cream sauce. I stole her pasta pot and gave her the small burner for some friendly sabotage,” Mendelsohn says, adding that they laughed the entire time while cooking side by side.

90 Day Fiancé Pillow Talk stars David and Annie watch the TLC show and its numerous spinoffs together and challenge each other to see who can most accurately predict the outcome of each episode: “We bet on what couples will eat for food when overseas. Winner gets to pick the location for dinner,” says David. They also challenge each other to guess “a 90 Day couple who is fighting from the previous scene or week and who says sorry first. Winner gets a 10 minute massage.”

Credit: Tia Blanco

And pro surfer and co-founder of Dear Self Skincare, Tia Blanco, is always challenging her boyfriend, professional surfer Colt Ward, to something. “We are constantly playing little games, such as how long we can hold our breath, how many waves we can catch when we’re surfing, or even playing games on our phones,” she says. The pair has been together since they were young and competing in surf contests at the same events, and, she says, “that competitive spirit has never waned.”

It’s fun to encourage each other’s more competitive instincts, but it’s also important to keep an eye on striking the right tone. According to dating and relationship expert Nicole Moore of Love Works Method, competitiveness becomes too much when it veers into mean-spiritedness. “It's fine and even fun to compete with your partner, but when you start to put them down if they lose or make them feel less than, it becomes a problem,” she warns.

Keep an eye on whether you’re gloating too much, Moore says; if your version of competitiveness includes jabs at your competitor, this will likely make your partner want to pull away. 

And try to keep competitions low-stakes, says Jason Lee, a relationship science and data analyst with Healthy Framework. Healthy competition can be fruitful for a relationship where unhealthy competition can be the death of it; the difference between the two is what you're competing about and how far you take it.

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“Competing about things like who wins at mini-golf or who is the better bowler is fun, and it can add an extra layer of emotional excitement,” he says. “However, competing on things that people may be more sensitive about, like getting a better grade on a test or scoring the higher paying job, is a slippery slope.” Knowing your partner and their sensitivity level will help you hit that sweet spot, he says.  

“When things are too competitive it will stifle one of the most important dynamics in a healthy relationship: collaboration,” says Jenkins. The key, she says, is to find the balance between competition, chemistry, and mutual growth – what she calls “competition in micro-doses.”

Think you’re ready to challenge your partner to some friendly competition? Here are some healthy ways to infuse it into your relationship.

Try new things to find out what you’re good at: Bronstein says engaging in different forms of friendly competition with a partner will help you to discover who is good at what. For instance, one person might be better at basketball, but the other might be better at singing or trivia. “Sometimes, both people are equally as good at something, and that's when it gets really fun because it ends up being a complete surprise who will win,” she says.

Turn your shared To-Do list into a contest: “If individuals have chores to complete, they can compete to determine who can finish cleaning the bathroom faster and more effectively to make mundane tasks more enjoyable,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, M.D., a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry.Rebekah Montgomery, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington D.C. says it can be fun to put a couple bucks on “who can leave the least amount of clothes out and about or who can unload or load the dishwasher the most.”

Challenge each other to something fun – and make sure the wager is fun too:And you get to define “fun!” It could be a sexy game of strip poker, a swimming race across the pool, or a bet on the outcome of a sports game. “Make a plan beforehand that the ‘loser’ has to cook the ‘winner’ dinner or give them a back massage,” Bronstein suggests.

Turn your personal goals into couples’ competition: “I went through a period where I was trying to drink more water, so [my husband and I] challenged each other to a water-drinking contest,” Bronstein says. “Every day, for a week, we kept track of how many ounces of water we drank per day, and at the end of the week, the person who consumed the most won a free massage from the ‘loser.’” The duo also gets "Trivia Genius" emails every morning to see who’s sharpest that day.

Know when to back off: “Competition only works when both people enjoy it,” explains Dr. Jennifer B. Rhodes, a licensed clinical psychologist and dating/relationship coach. She knows from experience, having dated a guy who didn’t quite hit that balance: “From personal style, to choosing wine, to time off for vacation, his competitiveness rather than an ability to ‘just be’ ended up annoying me and we had to go our separate ways.”

So go ahead and gave a little fun with your partner but don’t take it too far. Nobody likes a sore loser – or a winner who lives to rub in a victory. As long as you’re both having fun: Game on!