Are you living in a combative relationship?
You want to fix it, but you are not sure how?
You have found the right article.
By the end of this article, you will know exactly what are combative relationships (with real-life examples), why people unwittingly create them and what you can do to fix your relationship.
What Are Combative Relationships
I will define a combative relationship as a relationship where one or both partners are more intent on showing superiority than on forming a partnership.
Combative relationships are defined by nasty games of “one upping” and put-downs.
A combative partner will often use verbal and nonverbal attacks as a way of demeaning their partner, such as:
- Making fun
- Highlighting partner’s mistakes
- Focus on “winning”
- Refusing small favors “out of spite”
- Diminishing partner’s accomplishments
- Belittling partner’s ideas and contributions
Let’s see a few mainstay of a combative relationship:
Sign 1: Criticism
Combative relationships see the partners constantly aggressing each other.
Sometimes it takes the form of non direct, non serious remarks. And that’s why many people fail to realize what’s actually going on.
For the sake of clarity, this is the same remark delivered in indirect and direct way:
Direct Aggression: Of course there’s enough space to park, you’re a terrible driver, switch seat and lemme do it!
Indirect: “Ahaha are you really asking me if there’s enough space? Ahaha a 30 ton truck could park there…
The first one could be mean, but the person saying it doesn’t hide himself and is not making fun of the other. It deals with the issue straight on and focuses on fixing it.
The second one is sneakier because it undermines your partner in an indirect way by making fun of her.
It’s also not solution oriented because it doesn’t solve the issue. Indeed the unconscious aim of the aggressor is to leave the issue open and up for longer discussion or escalation. It’s because, by keeping the focus on the partner’s shortcomings, the aggressor status keeps growing while the aggressed status diminishes.
Accusing partners using indirect aggression will also often go nowhere. The aggressor will hide behind the smoke screen of “it’s not true, it was just a joke (don’t be so touchy)”. There is some overlap here with passive aggressiveness as well.
Look at a few real-life examples here:
You will notice they are all jokes on paper. But they are all aggressive jokes, and jokes are simply one of way expressing oneself and don’t negate what we say or do simply for being jokes. As a matter of fact, we’re often more open when we pretend we’re joking.
Why it Happens
Most of the times I’ve witnessed combative relationships is not because both parties are aggressive. Nobody wants to live in a constant warfare. But one party feels the need to assert his superiority and the other party feels the need to defend himself and/or his position in the relationship.
In a way, both are trapped in a combative relationship but neither knows any better and so it keeps going on and on for ever.
How it Should Be:
A relationship with endemic aggression is a failed relationship.
No relationships, and least of all a romantic one, needs aggression and you should not settle for it.
Your relationship should be your sanctuary of understanding, warmth and support. When you don’t get warmth and support from your partner you might as well (try to) string a one night stand after the other.
Read more on how to turn criticism into constructive feedback:
Sign 2: One-Upping
Aggression is terrible, but one upping is even sneakier. Aggression can sometimes be restricted to a specific moment or event, but one upping instead rarely happens in isolation and it’s more often symptomatic of a mindset and of a larger psychological need.
Why It Happens
The partner one-upping the other is in need of feeling superior and protecting their ego.
Albeit not exclusively, it is mostly a men issue, and it often goes hand in hand with a fixed mindset.
A partner with a fixed mindset believes that their qualities are set in stone, and their qualities define who they are.
So any time a man sees a woman outperforming him -smarter, more confident, richer etc.-, they feel inferior to her. This is hard to swallow for many men and particularly so for fixed mindset men because they see every single instance as another proof of who they are in general. So every single “loss” mean they are “losers”.
So they are constantly struggling to prove themselves better than their partners in an endless, incessant “who’s better” war.
Notice the very first skit here:
Elena brags a bit about her number of followers on Instagram.
Cardone is quick in highlighting how her followers are actually his followers. He is basically negating her notoriety and one-upping her to show he’s the real boss and the real star of the two.
To address this issue at the core:
How it Should Be
One upping people means tearing them down. But people in healthy relationships don’t tear each other down: they but build each other up.
Confident men who care about their partners don’t negate their wifes’ successes, but compliment, congratulate them and make them feel great about it.
See the difference:
Weak One-Upping Man:
Her: I have just hit 10k Instagram fans today!
Him: Oh, cool, and do you think that makes you a better person now? Who cares about followers…
If she’s bragging about, it’s obviously important to her! If she’s bragging about it to you, she cares about what you think. The man here probably doesn’t have 10k fans and is afraid of being inferior because of it.
So he tries to tear down her whole metrics of success and, in the process, her whole judgement (very, very demeaning).
Confident Man :
Her: I have just hit 10k Instagram fans today!
Him: Wow, congratulations baby! Give me a hug, we should have a toast to that! How do you feel about it..
The feeling this second example gives you should need no further explanation. But basically here the man is making her feel great for her accomplishment, but is also communicates deeper and more general feelings: he is communicating that he appreciates her and her successes and that he is happy for her and he himself becomes a part of that success.
This second man is the kind of man she will want to be around and share her stories with. And, very possibly, her whole life.
How To Fix Combative Relationships
First off, you need to understand you’re in a combative relationship. If you are reading this article, you either looked for it and you know, or you know now after reading this port.
Second, you need to understand if the combative dynamic is mostly because of your issues or your partner’s issues.
If You’re The Aggressor:
In all frankness, a proverb springs to mind: the smallest dogs are the ones who (need to) bark the loudest. Men who are leaders of their relationship do NOT need to state it and do not need to prove it.
If you are the one aggressing then, you need to work on yourself first and foremost. In the meanwhile, fake it till you make it:
- Stop aggressing
- Consciously replace aggression with warmth
Breaking the vicious circle and starting a virtuous one will likely help you stick with it by itself because, at the end of the way, everyone loves a supportive relationship and you’ll immediately see the benefits.
You will still probably regress from time to time, but keep staying vigilant and little by little you will completely stamp out the aggressive behavior.
If Your Partner is The Aggressor
If your partner is the aggressor, the fix might be easier than you think. You have to make them feel loved and appreciated in spite of their shortcomings. Or maybe even because of their shortcomings (as explained by Brene Brown in Daring Greatly).
The vast majority of people will welcome you as their liberator when you’ll be the one who can welcome them for who they are. Deep down, we all naturally long for a place and a relationship where we can let our guard down and be loved for who we are.
You will not just show warmth though, but you will also “punish” first the bad behavior with some tough love and operant conditioning.
To show how we will move away from the Instagram example and use the situation from the video where she rudely refused to give him his pen:
Her (swats his hand away)
Him: (warmly, genuinely hurt) why are you doing that. I need a pen, I would happily lend you my pen if you needed one
Her: Sorry that was a bit rude maybe but why should you take my pen, get your own pen
Him: No, I just needed it for a second but the pen is not the point, it goes deeper and I’ve seen this dynamic a few times now and I feel we should address it. The point is that we’re together now and if you needed a pen right now I’d be happy to help you with a pen right now. And if tomorrow you need help in some other way I can help you with, say a shoulder to cry on like it happened last week, I’m happy to help you in that way. Because I want to see you happy. I see relationships as a way of helping each other. So if one day it’s me who needs your support, I’d also appreciate you to help me too. I believe those are the best relationships, the ones where we are a team. You’re my co-pilot and we are stronger as a team. Don’t you think that would be a better relationship?
Her: Yeah.. Sorry I just thought you wanted to steal my pen
Him: As if I would ever steal from you Elena. And there’s no stealing in a couple. But I’m glad we can understand each other. There, take your pen back.
The first time you do it, your partner will likely feel ashamed for their behavior. And that’s a great thing, because it means they understand and care.
Do it a few times and your relationship will quickly grow stronger and more collaborative than you thought possible (fringe cases are the real narcissistic, heavily egocentric and naturally belligerent.. Those you just drop).
Loving Relationships Mindset
You understand that the mindset of trying to win and showing yourself superior to your partner is ultimately a weak one driven and motivated by internal deficiencies.
You know that Strong and confident leaders don’t push other people down and don’t feel the need to show their superiority. They do the exact opposite: they help the people around get nearer their level, make them feel great and build them up.
A leader only task is to take care of their teams, says Simon Sinek (Leaders Eat Last).
Men in great relationships don’t dictate but instead make their woman part of their common decision making. Or even delegates to her in any realm where she’s better suited to lead or decide.
Ironically, the moment you stop “proving” yourself superior and focus instead on caring about your partner is also the moment you become the (great) leader of that relationship.
Most people don’t realize of being in a combative, sub-optimal relationship. Some tell themselves their partner is a good person after all and stick with it.
Some others realize how poisonous their relationship was only when they break up and meet a new partner showing them the great benefits of a “you and I” over the “I VS you”.
The good news is that you can do a lot to change your relationship. Combative relationships are often the consequence of weak egos and keep going out of vicious circle’s momentum.
But the moment you interrupt it that vicious circle and replace it with something better, chances are high it will change for the better.
- Make sure you have a positive to negative ratio of 5:1
- Accept influence to reduce arguments
- Learn conflict management skills
- Avoid the 4 Horsemen of The Apocalypse (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling)
- Don’t say mean things: they always leave bad scars
Or in one go, get all the information from the relationship manual: