Healthy competition in marriage? Is this​ possible?

5 min read

A friend of mine read my blog on how grace helps us deal with competition in our marriage. He and his wife are good friends of ours and they had a nagging issue they wanted me to help address. In a nutshell, their issue was this, is there healthy competition in marriage? Can a married couple healthily compete to build each other, to make each other better, and build a great life?

Our ensuing conversation went something like this. I asked him to define the term healthy competition. I had to probe his definition so I could understand what he means. He said something akin to this. He said, “It is bringing your talents, gifts and experience together to win in life, to build a great life. When we compete we make each other better.”

Then I said to him, “Your definition has to assume that a rival, a competitor exists, right? You are not just competing in a vacuum. There is an opponent and a prize, right?”  Yes, he said. Then I asked, “Who is the competitor? Your spouse? Is it your wife?” He mumbled and sounded lost. I then gave him a hint, “Or, is your rival, your competitor, an outside force? Something besides the both of you that may try to defeat you or establish superiority over your marriage and family.”

I then showed him the definition of competition from the Oxford Dictionary. The Oxford Dictionary defines competition as the activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others.

So I asked him to imagine his wife trying to defeat him or establish superiority over him. Or even vice versa. Isn’t that a recipe for disaster? What about complementing each other to compete with forces outside your marriage to win?

Notice the picture I formed in his mind. I nudged him towards the idea that when you come together, especially in a Christian marriage, you come together to complement each other. In the Christian faith, husband and wife are equal before God but have different roles they play within marriage to compete against forces outside of their marriage and build a great life. Equal and different roles. Both/and not either/or. (Ephesians 5:23-30 NLT)

I offered him thoughts about healthy competition in marriage. Healthy competition is an oxymoron, I said. It’s like saying, “I’ve just eaten healthy MacDonald Burger and chips, or healthy Burger King meal or healthy KFC meal.” Do you see the irony here? Healthy and junk food or most fast foods cannot be in the same sentence.

Why do we compete?

Competition is at the center of who we are as human beings. It is our default flawed mode. We compete to destroy the other. No one wins just to win for win’s sake. No ways. We win to belittle, look good, better or superior to others.  And so we bring this flawed mode into marriage with catastrophic results.

This is something that Jenny and I constantly have to grapple with. It’s a rival or outside force that’s always at the gates—that seeks to defeat or establish superiority over us. And every time it rears its ugly head, Jenny or I have to back off and retreat. We have to see it for what it is. We are learning not to compete. We think it’s a fight to the death, though. As long as we are humans, and competition being inherent in us, it’s a fight until we get new bodies and live in a new heaven and a new earth. (Revelation 21 NLT)

A question and thoughts I posed to my friend were like this, what’s the use of marriage if we came together to compete? We should have stayed single or in a marriage made a business arrangement that we are competitors, foremost.  And this is where pre-nuptials come in. A prenup is just a way of two competitors safeguarding their hard earned, much-coveted awards, prizes and assets after years of competition against their former spouses, or even new ones. 

And sadly, many Christian couples have bought into this idea. They build their lives viewing each other as competitors. It starts out as fun, initially, but not long after it becomes an out-of-control fire that burns the whole building down.

Enter Jesus

Christian, consider how Jesus your bridegroom married you. Did you bring anything beneficial to the marriage? If yes, what is it you brought? Good things? Absolutely not. You only brought bad things—sin. Jesus brought good things—holiness, righteousness, inheritance, adoption, wealth, identity, etc. He could have easily signed a prenup with you because the assets he worked hard for (he died for those things) would have to be safeguarded. But no, he married you anyway. And in his marriage to you, he doesn’t compete with you. He complements you. He is for you. He works for you. He advocates for you. He defends you. He provides for you. He leads you. He prays for you. He does everything for you. It is actually a one-sided arrangement and you are the beneficiary. Jesus refuses to compete with us because he obviously would win. He is all-powerful. He would snuff us out with one stroke of his finger. We are no competition for him. Instead, he complements us. He serves us.

It is from this idea we enter marriage. We live together, build together and succeed or fail together. No one claims the high ground or any ground at all. We are in it to win it or lose it.

This is counterintuitive in a generation that vehemently and sometimes violently believes in our rights—human rights. Our generation that is all ME, ME, ME. When you teach, preach or counsel this expect to be fully clothed in a nudist island. 

I think the Christian faith has the most plausible resource that could transform highly individualistic and competitive humans. This resource is called GRACEGrace is the transformative power made available to imperfect people because a perfect man hung on a tree. Too simplistic? Idiotic perhaps? Yes, you are right.

This man, Jesus, died for individualistic and competitive people to free them to live for others, to consider others, and in marriage to complement each other.

That’s what grace looks like.