6 Relationships in Every Marriage

The drawbacks of competitive coupling

Posted Apr 05, 2016

I am bad at remembering which ideas are mine and which are other people’s (making scholarly writing a chore), but it seems to me that I attended a lecture by Israel Charney in which he said that he started every couple’s therapy by charting how they were doing in six different components of marriage.

1. Lovers

2. Friends

3. Financial partners

4. Companions

5. Roommates

6. Co-parents

Let me note, first, that “companions” means having someone to go to the movies or a wedding with; “co-parents” means a joint enterprise which for parents means parenting but can also mean a business, a garden, or pets. Identifying which of the six marital relationships is implicated in any conflict can help the couple come up with resolutions and strategies to prevent future conflicts.

One of the most useful strategies for managing conflict is to outsource the relationships that the couple does poorly or half-heartedly. A married couple can keep their finances almost entirely separate, for example, or they can rely on other people as companions. Another good strategy is to insist that other aspects of relating are kept separate during conflict resolution, so that friendship is not used to solve a sexual problem and sex is not used to solve a roommate problem. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with solving a sexual problem in the context of reminding yourselves that you are friends.

Many American marriages unfold in a culture that believes that sex cannot be successfully outsourced, that a monopoly on romantic love must be the cornerstone of a good marriage. In countries where arranged marriages are normative, other sub-relationships are more crucial (at least for a man). Even couples who are privately comfortable outsourcing sex face hardships in keeping the practice secret from their friends and communities. It’s often useful to remember that no marriage can have an absolute monopoly on romance because every human has a fantasy life. Efforts to achieve such a monopoly are totalitarian and bound to fail. Instead, a couple ought to figure out where to draw the line, as I discuss in my post on flirting.

What I call “competitive coupling” (an internet search reveals that this term has already appeared) plays out poorly but differently in each marital sub-relationship. To me, competitive coupling has two inter-related components. The first is a competition between the spouses. A transformative moment in my own marriage occurred when my wife hadn’t emptied the dishwasher when I expected her to have done so, so I emptied it while she was web-surfing. I did this in a huff, sighing and clanking things. She asked me, “Who are you performing for? You’re putting on a show about how burdened you are to have such a negligent spouse, but I’m also the audience for the show.” This ended the practice in our house of doing things in a huff. Each of the six marital sub-relationships can be lived as a competition or as a collaboration. If one spouse is winning (better roommate, better lover, whatever), the problem is typically in their approach to the relationship rather than in the other spouse’s inadequacy.

The second form of competitive marriage is between couples. You compete with other people on who has the better marriage or, in its most corrosive form, on who has the worse marriage. The latter involves solidifying an identity as put upon and gaining prestige for suffering. Many people find it difficult to outsource companionship because they are confronted at the function they attended alone by relentless questions about where their spouse is. This is exponentially more difficult for people who outsource sex. The cure is often to refuse to discuss your marriage in competitive circles.

A lot of couples I have worked with in marital therapy (I use the term retroactively to include gay couples) approached sex as a competition, with the person more interested in sex characterizing the spouse as bad at it. Instead, a collaborative conversation about whether and how the marriage would meet the person’s sexual desires was often helpful. I’ve blogged about the ensuing ideas here (6 Common Problems) and here (8 Sex Tips).

In many cultures, including especially those with distinct gender expectations, men and women cannot be friends. I personally would not want to be in a marriage that wasn’t with my best friend, but the vast majority of heterosexual spouses in my experience are not friends. This can work fine when spouses have their own friends, but it can be a major source of conflict when they get competitive about it. Usually, that takes the form of a stereotypical wife providing overtures for friendship and enjoying the expectation of complaining to her friends about her husband’s incompetence in sisterly friendships. Traditional husbands tend not to put their wives through this kind of wringer, and save their friendliness for the golf course or poker table. A similar genderized conflict arises in co-parenting, where the traditional mother resents the father’s ability to soothe the child, or the father sees it as a competitive failure compared to other men if he knows how to feed the baby. These gender-based conflicts seem to be less prevalent these days.

You can get good advice from your best friend on how to resolve conflicts at work, but you wouldn’t ask your best friend to give you money to make up for your business partner’s carelessness. Someone at work might give you good advice about your sex life, but it’s not a good idea to ask someone at work to meet your sexual needs. Clarifying the different sub-relationships in a marriage can have a similar positive effect. Spouses who are bad roommates can hire someone to do their share, or they can develop some other solution to the roommate problem, but they don’t have to let it affect their friendship or their love life.