The Winner Takes It All: How a "zero sum game" mentality can ruin relationships

We all have engaged in competition in our lives. Any application to an academic program, any job interview process, even vying for a taxi at rush hour can be considered a competition of sorts. The idea of competing is exhilarating to some, frightening to others. Still others have a curious way of transforming every interpersonal interaction into a contest, where there is a clear winner and a clear loser—no in between.

We learn how to compete at a very early age. As infants we see ourselves as the center of the universe and, in a good enough nurturing environment, we are. But then as development continues we learn the inconvenient fact that we are not the center of the universe and there are rivals for a parent's love and attention: our parent's spouse or partner, a sibling, even a pet. We employ strategies, behavioral and emotional, to recapture Mommy's attention away from the rival and back to us. If development continues in a normative trajectory, we make internal and interpersonal provisions for the others in our lives; we learn to tolerate and make room for others.

But, sometimes, we can get stuck feeling as though we have not had enough attention, affection or affirmation from important others. If we reach adulthood feeling as though we missed out on a parent's love and approval, a specific teacher's validation, we could potentially attempt to recapture some of that lost love by setting up each relationship as a contest, a battle, a test. We find that the achievement of others is intolerable to us, making us feel depleted and defeated. There are winners and there are losers, period. If another wins, we lose.

This is not to say that there aren't winners and losers in life. If you miss out on the last pair of tickets to the Springsteen concert because some other guy got to the box office before you, then he's won and you've lost. That is a zero sum game. However, when we employ a "zero sum game" mentality as an interpersonal style, life can become a painful vacillation between hollow victories and devastating defeats. In a zero sum game mentality, there can be only one winner and one loser. Each relationship falls under the sway of a battle, a contest–and winner takes all. The art of compromise is not even considered; even to compromise in this model of relating is tantamount to losing.

A former patient of mine struggled with this very problem. She came from a family that valued debate as the chief method of communication. And she, being the youngest of four siblings, felt that she was rarely ever able to "win" any argument posed by her highly intelligent and verbal parents and older sisters. And the discussions ranged from politics and social justice to where to go on vacation or what to have for dinner. Often she felt ignored by both her parents, shadowed by her accomplished older sisters. Her school life became a battleground where she took on far too much to prove herself worthy. Every friendship and romantic encounter was reduced to a battle of wills and wits. If she "won" the person was not worthy of her; if she "lost" she was devastated and reduced to lowest rung of the self-esteem ladder.

Shortly before leaving treatment for a new job out of state, she began dating a man who neither fit the usual mold or would participate in her contests. When she would declare "I win!" during a conversation, he would look at her quizzically and say "who's fighting?" She was bewildered by this behavior and soon she found ways to vilify him and reduce his worth in her eyes. Sadly, she was quite successful at this and the potential for a mutually satisfying relationship with no battle lines drawn withered away. She left town convinced of two opposing beliefs: either that she was unlovable or that no one was, as she chillingly put it, a "worthy opponent."

Relating in this way is painful and frustrating to both members of the pair, I'll call them the "combatant" (the person who initiates the contest) and the "target" (the person on the receiving end). The combatant is constantly vigilant, working to prevent the other from taking advantage. Such hypersensitivity can transform even the most casual remark into an attack. The target grows both weary and wary of the partner's aggressive style and eventually needs to draw his own battle lines or wave the white flag of surrender or just leave the relationship.

Lest the reader think this is a one-dimensional phenomenon, allow me to complicate matters by suggesting that BOTH parties have the capacity at any given time to turn their relationship into a battle royal. All it takes is one person to feel unseen or unacknowledged in a time of personal distress and those early fears can get triggered. Each will go to their respective sides, hunker down and refuse to budge. And we can all be vulnerable to this at different times of our lives. No one is immune.

What can be done to prevent relationship Armageddon? First, we must examine why it is so difficult to tolerate a "loss," including a loved one being "right" about something in an argument. Secondly, it is imperative to create a space that represents "us," in which both people's minds, hearts, desires and needs have equal consideration. This is not easy to establish. But without this "us space" any important relationship is in danger of becoming a series of skirmishes in which both parties greedily and resentfully keep score; a place where "I win" really becomes "we've both lost."