Dear Level

How to Lose Gracefully to Your Partner

Ways to cope when your romance starts to feel like a rivalry

So, I’m on a date with this guy. We’re walking to the train. I notice that it looks like it’s going to rain, but I tell him we should have plenty of time before it starts.

“It’s about to rain now,” he insists.

“How do you know?” I ask.

“I can just tell. I come from a long line of diviners.”

“A long line of what?”

This guy looks at me as if he’s puzzled. “You don’t know the word diviner?” he asks. “It means someone who can feel when something is coming.”

And then it started raining.

Within a few weeks, this guy was throwing out words I’d either never heard a day in my life (mulligan!), knew but had just never used (magnanimous), or were so old that they don’t even appear in modern dictionaries (diswont).

And every time he hit me with a new word, I wanted to punch him in the face. I’d silently swoon — that brain was too sexy not to — but I still wanted to punch him.

My smart-aleck ways ruined plenty of prospective relationships. Years ago, in my twenties, I went on a date with a guy and I asked him how many siblings he had. He told me he didn’t have any kids. I never called him back.

Here’s the thing: I started school at age four. Not kindergarten: first grade. Started high school at 12. College at 16. I had the nerve to be two years younger and still be reading and writing leaps and bounds beyond my classmates. I was a know-it-all and a teacher’s pet. I was the kid who got a more challenging spelling test than the rest of the class — and would still ace it. I would read entire books in a day, and then do book reports on them that no one had asked me to do. I was a proud member of the inaugural class of the Grammar Police. (Sworn in back in 1977. Still on the force. Refuse to retire.)

My smart-aleck ways ruined plenty of prospective relationships. Years ago, in my twenties, I went on a date with a guy and I asked him how many siblings he had. He told me he didn’t have any kids. I never called him back. Then there was the guy who always used the nonword “conversate.” It made me itch. I’ve always been this way and I will not apologize for it.

But back to Mr. Diviner. We’re now engaged; in fact, his nickname is Mulligan. Still, at least once a week, he teaches me a new word and/or definition. (Thankfully, he can’t spell for shit or I’d really be pissed.) And what I’ve realized is that I’m not actually bothered by the fact that he knows more words than me — it’s that my natural know-it-all competitive side blows up around him. If we had been classmates growing up, he also would’ve had a separate spelling test.

Being in this relationship has taught me to let my inner competitive nature go. I’ve learned to humbly accept his lessons, be one with not knowing as many words as he does, and take comfort that I have my own talents and abilities.

Except that’s all a lie.

I hate — hate — that he’s better at me than anything. We invested in a deluxe Scrabble board during quarantine. I’d never played before, so we played a test game. That was the only game. Because I’m afraid he would win, and then I’d run to the bathroom and sob quietly like the time I failed my math final in eighth grade. (I actually didn’t fail. I got a C-. Same thing.)

Okay, so do you need to know how to navigate competitiveness in a relationship? Do you need to manage it? Can it cause trouble if you’re not careful?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Usually, this is where I share advice on how to be a better person in your relationship. Not this time. I have no advice for you. I’m trying to be better.

But here’s what I do for myself that lets me know when my competitiveness is a problem. If you see yourself in these items, you need to check yourself, too.

1. I can’t let the small stuff go

We somehow got into a debate over how long Conan O’Brien was on network television. Shane said it was just a few years. I knew it was well over a decade. Did it really matter? No. He moved on. I went to Google. Did I have to let him know he was wrong? (He was on NBC from 1993–2010.) No. But I did it anyway.

2. I take things personally

After all this time, I still roll my eyes at him when he uses some unfamiliar word. That says more about me than it does about him. But seriously, he once referred to a small amount of food as a soup​çon. Are you kidding me?!

3. I get sarcastic

There’s this song from the musical Annie Get Your Gun called “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).” I find myself humming it to myself whenever I think he’s beat me at yet another obscure word identification. And I start to think of things I can do better than my partner: cartwheels; using a flat iron; watching every single Marvel movie in order; making sugar cookies; and pretending not to see dirty dishes.

The trouble with competitiveness in a relationship isn’t what it does to your relationship — it’s what it does to you. You can let it eat you up, or you can enjoy that your partner is on your level.

Truth is, I’d much rather have him boosting my vocabulary than saying “conversate.” Blech.

Aliya S. King is an author, freelance writer and editor.

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