When the woman who is now my wife and I started dating, we went on a lot of cheap dates — which is to say we spent quite a bit of time in my apartment eating grilled cheese and playing Jenga, neither of which are euphemisms. For clarity, and without making a big deal out of it, I probably should have skipped college to go pro in Jenga. And if I had, there’s no doubt the Jenga Magic Johnson to my Larry Bird would have been my wife. She is incredible at Jenga. I don’t know if it’s because it allows her to harness her anal-retentive instincts in a way that’s socially acceptable or if she’s just preternaturally skilled at stacking small pieces of wood, but she’s truly amazing at it. The first night we played together our tower grew so tall we ran out of viable pieces to pull, but it was my turn. The pieces fell, but I felt like I’d lost on a technicality so we played again. The result was nearly the same, and when the tower crumbled on my watch once more I worried her respect for me was tumbling right along with it.
It was devastating. She continued to win. Every time, and at pretty much everything we played. This conflict didn’t ruin our relationship, however. If anything, it advanced it. Nearly ten years after that first date, we still play all manner of games together. She crushes me in Catan. She murders in Mario Kart. She’s superior at Spades and euphoric during Euchre, Spades’ slightly faster, much more complicated Midwestern equivalent. Her prowess in every game to which she applies herself is what makes defeating her so satisfying.
She feels the same way about me. Stoking one another’s competitive instincts is one of the secrets of our marriage. For starters, playing games together allows us to argue about stuff that doesn’t actually matter. It also saves us quite a bit of money, a thing that does matter, and one of the things we argue about the most.
Competition, that long-heralded engine of the free market, can benefit your marriage even if you aren’t an Ayn Rand acolyte. Beyond the aforementioned bonus of keeping date night relatively spend-free, studies suggest an evening of facing off might turn both of you on, even if you aren’t playing strip poker or XXXopoly. Watching my wife excel in a physical or mental challenge reminds me of the reasons I fell in love with her in the first place: She always has a strategy as well as three backup plans. She never quits, and her withering trash talk will make you wonder if you should. She also does this adorable dance when she’s victorious, and on more than one occasion I’ve considered losing on purpose just to watch her celebrate. A few rolls, rounds, or Jenga-block pulls later and she’s taken the decision out of my hands.
Stoking one another’s competitive instincts is one of the secrets of our marriage. For starters, playing games together allows us to argue about stuff that doesn’t actually matter. It also saves us quite a bit of money, a thing that does matter, and one of the things we argue about the most.
Board games are great because you can dramatically sweep them off the table when you lose, or throw paper money (or wheat and ore cards) in your spouse’s face when you win, but they aren’t the only field on which a friendly but also deadly serious battle can take place. You can compete on an actual field, for instance. Alternatively, if you’re out running errands together you can race each other in the parking lot (winner gets to drive). You can engage in a healthy diet or workout program and compete to see who falls off the wagon first. If you’re feeling feisty there’s always the option of starting up your own mattress wrestling league, where even if she pins you you’ll feel like you’ve come out on top. (Note: if she jokingly suggests your next match should be a Royal Rumble, make sure you both acknowledge what that would entail. No one wants to clean up after 28 unexpected guests.) It’s just a matter of what works for you.
Sometimes we’ll play on the same side (which is great for me because it means my team will have the best player as well as his wife), and not all the games we play together are competitive. Lately, we’ve gotten a lot of joy playing Pandemic, a collaborative game where you work as a team to prevent a global outbreak of deadly infectious disease (it’s more fun than it sounds). Other nights, she’ll play back-seat driver while I play GTA, or we’ll problem solve our way through linear puzzle-heavy video games like Limbo or Inside, both of which offered us opportunities to not only play a game together, but to discuss the philosophical questions raised by the games themselves — which I guess we could also do with Donkey Kong Country, we just haven’t played it in awhile.
Competing together further reinforces the ways in which we complement one another. It also helps us remember that when it comes to our marriage, we both have different skills we should trust and enable the other to utilize. It’s not emasculating to admit she’s better than me at charades, just as it isn’t a threat to acknowledge that she’s team captain when it comes to managing our family finances. She’s able to tip her cap my way when I trounce her at Scrabble and is therefore more willing to insist I edit all her business-related emails. If there were a game show where the contestants were judged on how tidy they kept their kitchen we would both likely be eliminated in the first round, which is one of the reasons “loser does the dishes” is a standing side bet each of us can get behind on game night
It’s not emasculating to admit she’s better than me at charades, just as it isn’t a threat to acknowledge that she’s team captain when it comes to managing our family finances.
Yes, things get heated, and you should know that competition as a driver of marital bliss can backfire. After a particularly hard-fought game of Settlers of Catan she swore it off forever — not because she was mad about losing to me, but rather because she was aware the drive to win at any cost was making her a less pleasant person even after the colorful tiles and little wooden houses and roads had been boxed up. Even this was a positive, in my opinion. Self-reflection is vital to any healthy marriage, regardless of whether or not it was brought on by a surplus of wool on your opponent’s final roll. The games we play impact the people we become, as do the games we walk away from. She’s come back around on Catan, and she’s also completely changed her strategy, part of which is to convince other people not to trust me during play.
And our love, like a never-ending Jenga tower, continues to grow, daring anyone to knock it down. In the event of a collapse, I’m certain the two of us will join one another in picking up the pieces, the foundation we’ve built together sturdy enough to start building on again.