The Newlywed Games

“You compete me”

Newlywed games
A dozen roses from a suitor may be flattering, but they can't compare to the tacit admission that we are in the same league. Illustration by Eric Palma

Some say that competition between spouses is like dragging a fork across a balloon. Before long, the whole thing explodes. But for me, gaining a lifelong, live-in opponent was the icing on the wedding cake.

Like most people, when it came to finding a soul mate, I searched for that elusive combination of spontaneous romance and day-to-day compatibility. But I was also looking for someone who would challenge me. Having played sports since the peewee level, I’ve always had a competitive streak. The way I see it, when someone competes with me, they’re saying, “I consider you a worthy match” in wit, sport or whatever the contest. A dozen roses from a suitor may be flattering, but they can’t compare to the tacit admission that we are in the same league.

So, when I met my future husband, he had me at “I bet you.” I was a member of my college track team, and his chosen flirtation was challenging me to four laps. We graduated, went on to pursue careers thousands of miles apart, but soon enough we reunited in the same city and reverted to our sporting ways. He and I ran a marathon. We biked 471 miles across the state of Iowa. And when all signs were pointing to our riding off into the sunset together, we were in full agreement that it wouldn’t be on a bicycle built for two.

That spirit saw us through the torturous process of planning the wedding—where disagreements over china patterns and seating charts have ended more than a few engagements. Our least favorite task was deciding on the invitation. Elbow deep in the stationery store’s binders, we declared a contest: “First one to find the perfect invitation wins.” (I’ve since learned that if there is something I’d like my husband to do, I just bet him that he can’t. It works like a charm.)

Mind you, our rivalry is playful. We compare Scrabble scores, not salaries. When “Jeopardy!” is on, we throw answers out like darts. For the Oscars, we fill out ballots, and come March, it’s college basketball brackets. The stakes? Usually, loser cooks dinner.

In contests that would normally require a judge’s ruling, we trust each other enough to make the right call. Once, during a commercial break for “Top Chef,” we staged a Quickfire Challenge. Using any ingredients in our closet-size kitchen, we each had to produce a dessert. For a brief and desperate moment, my husband declared his presentation was superior. He ultimately conceded—not in bitterness but in fair play. It was clear to both of us that my warm peach and cream cheese blintz trounced his deconstructed yogurt parfait.

All the while, I think back to our marriage vows. Before our family and friends, we promised to honor each other in good times and bad, in joy and sorrow and in sickness and health.

The way that last vow echoed in the church, though, I could have sworn I heard “in quickness and in stealth.”

Megan Gambino is an editorial assistant at Smithsonian.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.