Why You Should Think Of Your Relationship As A Team Sport

Written by Julia B. Colwell

Most of us are hyped up about the Super Bowl. Rooting for a team is undeniably fun and comforting. But when was the last time we thought deeply about what we could actually learn from team sports, and even apply to our own lives?

In particular, people in committed romantic relationships could learn a lot from team sports. Not from individual sports, where each person is pitted against the other. In fact, I've actually noticed that too many people take their relationship cues from tennis or golf, and launch into competition with their significant others.

Especially when stress is up and chips are down, many people in relationships jump into the strategies of individual sports, relying on competition to gain a sense of control and order in their lives. Scoring points is popular: "See, the route you suggested got us stuck in traffic!" "I can't believe you forgot your mom's birthday!" "What were you thinking!?" In short, many couples battle to "win" arguments — or at least, to avoid losing them.

But we all know that competition in this way often creates resentment, frustration, further fighting and other toxic dynamics. So what if you and your partner behaved as if your relationship was a team sport? You'd figure out your mutual goals ahead of time and then work together to achieve them. If one of you fumbled or fell, you wouldn't spend much time focusing on the screw-up, you'd take a timeout, reconfigure and create a new play.

Imagine measuring your successes and failures together, not separately. When you reached your goals, you'd dance around, give each other high-fives, hugs, kisses and maybe even treat yourself to some champagne.

I've imagined what a football team huddle might sound like if it were operating like some of the couples I've worked with:

Quarterback: I can't even believe you dropped that ball. That was so thoughtless. You made me look really bad in front of all of those people.

Wide Receiver: Look, I tried really hard. I just don't know what happened. Maybe you should have thought a little more before you threw it so I would have at least had a chance to get it.

QB: Don't go blaming me again. I've put up with that long enough!

WR: Come on, don't be like that. OK, I'm sorry. Just tell me what you want me to do. Maybe there's something wrong with me.

The conversation could continue endlessly, and unproductively. Sure, that approach might give football a new direction, but the games would go on literally forever. When we adopt this birds-eye-view perspective, thinking about our typical fight-dynamics out of context (and put them in the context of team sports!), it becomes clear just how unproductive typical fighting "strategies" are. Trying to "win" a fight against your partner is a lost-cause.

But what if we switch it around now? Let's look at what it might sound like if a couple behaved like they were on the same team ...

Pat: I notice that there were some bills that didn't get paid last month. I see that I didn't create good agreements about how that would happen.

Chris: Oh, right — and I dropped the ball. I remember now that we'd set up that goal to get those bills paid off. I see I'll need to make a concerted effort to follow through with the things I say I will do.

Pat: That would be great! I know you can do it. I'm going to focus more on my meditation tapes — I know I've been getting tense lately.

Now wonder about your own relationship. Have you been spending your time and energy competing with each other, gaining or losing points in an endless battle of one-upmanship? Or are you collaborating, cheering each other on, patting each other's butts and having a great time achieving your goals together?

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