When your spouse comes home from work and tells you his boss yelled at him in front of three colleagues, do you one-up him with a story of the client who reamed you out in a meeting—and later spilled his coffee on your shirt? When you tell your date you need to check out early tonight because you have a 6am conference call tomorrow, does he tell you that he's getting up at 5am to go to the gym? If this sounds familiar, you may be getting sucked into "misery poker."
In a new relationship-focused Wall Street Journal column called Bonds, author Elizabeth Bernstein explores the phenomenon of funereal one-upmanship: trying to outdo each other with tales of woe. Writes Bernstein,
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Lately, given the state of the world, stress is becoming our default mode. Many of us have lost our jobs, as well as our sense of security. Those of us who haven't are working harder than ever, even as we live in terror of being laid off. It's getting much harder to leave our angst at the office. And with all the work and worrying, everyone is sleep-deprived.
This phenomenon is common for couples with kids. When both parents feel they're shouldering more of the household burden, they may try to make the other one feel remorseful by talking about how stressed they are. Chores for Two: Why Men Don't Pitch In
Sometimes, though, when your husband talks about his bad day, he just wants you to give him a hug. So resist the urge to tell him your day was worse.
Bernstein suggests that if you're engaging in morose out-maneuvering, take a break. "Agree that for the next hour—or whatever amount of time it takes—you'll discuss only upbeat topics. If you talk about your day, you'll use positive terms. If you can't manage that, just be quiet."
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If you can't talk to your partner about your troubles without having to listen to his, try letting him know up front that you need some support. If he realizes that you're not trying to guilt him he might be better able to listen.
And if you feel you can't avoid talking about how bad your day was, paste a post-it note to your forehead that says "Mine was worse." Then you won't need to have a conversation at all.