"I'm sorry that I spelt the word: I hate to go above you, Because," -- the brown eyes lower fell, -- "Because, you see, I love you!" -- "In School Days," by John Greenleaf Whittier

This 1870 ode to a girl who bested a boy in spelling neatly sums up the traditional paradox posed by competition between the sexes: Boy meets girl, girl beats boy, both feel rotten.

In Whittier's day, the pains and pleasures of coeducation were a new experience. Generally, proper 19th-century men and women existed in their own gender-defined spheres and shunned contests with members of the opposite sex for fear of being labeled "unmanly" or "unladylike."

Today, however, most of the barriers separating "men's work" from "women's work" have crumpled and the sexes routinely face off against one another virtually everywhere, from the tennis courts to the legal courts.

And in a society that tends to endorse Vince Lombardi's "winning-is-the-only thing" motto, competition is often at its sharpest when a sexual dynamic is present.

"Competition has become a big, big issue for couples," says Washington marriage counselor Judy Lansing. "In the past, competition in a relationship was limited to vying for the children's affection or the general question of who was the better person.

"But today, you see couples competing in all kinds of situations--who makes more money, who's the better cook, which one has the better job, who's the best athlete. This undermines many deep-rooted expectations about how marriage should be and tends to create great conflict. Often the wife feels cheated and guilty and the husband feels threatened and angry."

Since "people today feel pressure to act liberated," says Lansing, they often deny any feelings of discomfort over their spouse's achievements. Problems rooted in competition "may wind up being confronted indirectly and acted out in totally different arenas" such as sexual problems, alcohol abuse and extramarital affairs.

"A great many couples deny that any competition exists between them," concurs Wisconsin psychiatrist David Rice, author of Dual Career Marriage: Conflict and Treatment. "This goes back to the notion that marriage should be cooperative, and that it's inappropriate to compete with someone of the opposite sex."

But common problems he sees in his practice "often have a competitive feeling." Typical contests surround decision-making issues such as whose job gets preference and where finances will be allocated. While "honest competition can be healthy," he notes, "often these arguments degenerate to stereotyped notions of what 'should be'.

"One person might say 'I should be making the decisions because I make more money,' and the other might say 'I should get to pick the house we live in because I spend more time there.' When arguments are won by fiat like this, it becomes difficult for both people to play honestly up to their capability."

Money -- a major instrument of power -- can be a particularly sensitive area of competition. While an estimated 18 percent of wives earn more than their husbands, a recent survey by Audits & Surveys, Inc., reveals that 40 percent of Americans think it is either "very important" (25 percent) or "somewhat important" (15 percent) that a husband have the higher paying job if both are employed.

A couple is more likely to experience conflict over a wife earning more than her husband if this represents a change in their original situation, says New York psychiatrist Helen Singer Kaplan.

"If, when a couple starts out, she's already a big star, this usually doesn't create any problems in the marriage," said Dr. Kaplan in an interview with Savvy magazine. "Often, however, the initial contract is a secret deal stating that the woman is supposed to lose in any competion--in tennis, in Monopoly. Then when something happens and she starts to earn a lot more money, there is a crisis."

The roots of this "competition crisis" lie largely in the socialization process, wrote anthropologist Margaret Mead in her 1949 classic, Male & Female: "Many societies have educated their male children on the simple device of teaching them not to be women. But in addition to learning that at all costs he must not be a girl, he is continually forced to compete with girls at the very age when girls mature faster than boys.

Boys and girls "are treated as alike whenever it suits the world . . . in arithmetic, in table manners . . . and as unlike whenever that provides a better goad. If a boy cries, he is scolded more than a girl who doesn't cry; when she outstrips him, he is told it is even worse than if he had been outstripped by a boy, and yet she may be almost twice his size and he has also been told not to hit her because she is a girl."

These childhood inconsistencies can create great conflict in adulthood. "American men," wrote Mead, "have to use at least part of their sense of masculine self-esteem as men on beating women in terms of money and status. And American women agree with them and tend to despise a man who is outdistanced by a woman."

While these sex-stereotyped views have changed somewhat in the quarter-century since Mead wrote her book, psychologists note that many men still feel "unsexed by failure" while many women feel "unsexed by success."

The female "fear-of-success" syndrome can be a particular problem for women who enter nontraditional fields, says Youngstown State University psychology professor Ahalya Krishnan. "Since this experience is so different from what her upbringing led her to expect, she may have many anxieties . . . that she is somehow unfeminine, that others won't like her. Women are taught to nurture and feel good when the people around them feel good, so it may be difficult for her to defeat someone else and be happy about it."

This "success stigma" is a particular problem, says Krishnan, "in Western societies that take pride in self-selection of mates. Given the ratio of more women to men in the matrimonial market, many women fear that if they show a competitive side to men or beat them, they will scare off potential mates."

Women are used to competing for men, she says, not with them.

By contrast, in India -- where marriages are arranged -- a woman's high earning power is an asset in the marriage market. But there, she adds, "any money the wife earns goes to the husband. The man is the king."

Competition exists in all societies -- "even the communist ones that boast they're co-operative," claims Krishnan. "There you don't have individual competition, you have group competition and the peer pressure not to let your team down can be even more powerful."

America's current "competition anxiety," she says, is reflected in the tremendous popularity of videogames. "When you're competing with a machine and you fail, it's not going to ridicule you."

Society exacerbates competition confusion, says Los Angeles psychiatrist Judd Marmor, "by sending us mixed signals. On the one hand we say it's good to win, but on the other we say it's bad to be competitive. In general, society still tends to be more supportive of competitive men than of competitive women."

While "there are inborn differences between men and women indicating that more males than females tend to be aggressive at birth," he says, there is also "a tremendous amount of enculturation that leads us to accept and expect aggressive behavior from men."

A man's ability to lose gracefully in a competition with a woman, he says, "depends on how secure he is in his masculinity. A healthy man can accept and be proud of his wife's success, and will understand that her gains are not necessarily his losses. But if his masculinity is wrapped up in being more successful than she is, there could be a problem."

One reason "men fear failing to women," says University of Hartford psychology professor Bernard Z. Friedlander, "is that our culture is so heavily laden with men's status as superior and women's status as subordinate. So not only does he lose, he gets beaten by someone who's not even his equal. That's a double whammy."

As a modern example, he points to "the absolute fury of the Argentine generals over being beaten by a country headed by a woman. This is particularly offensive in a Latin, macho culture."

Until men and women are treated as equals "they'll have trouble competing with one another," says San Diego State University management professor Natasha Josefowitz. "In business, for example, competition is a stacked deck. Research shows most managers still believe a woman is working for supplementary income, while the man is working to put bread on the table. So they'd rather promote the man."

The experience of being passed over in favor of the "more deserving man," she says, tends to give women "lower self-esteem and lower aspirations. They lose faith in themselves, which hinders them in future competitions. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy."

The different kinds of games men and women play "both promotes and reflects different attitudes toward competition," says Wellesley College psychologist Grace Baruch. "Girls tend to play in twosomes where they form strong bonds. If they fight they break up. Boys tend to play games in larger groups where they must get along with many different kinds of people.

"There is a whole line of thought that argues girl's games are a preparation for monogamous marriage. If your main concern is your relationship with another, you'll find it difficult to compete. But if your main concern is defending your rights, competition is easier."

This "gender gap" in relation to games is changing, claims William B. Straub, author of Sports Psychology: An Analysis of Athletic Behavior. "There's an old saying that men come to sports to compete, and women come to sports to socialize. I think that's no longer true. They're both coming to win and to enjoy themselves."

The major problem with women competing against men in sports, says Straub, "is that there are very few sports in which men and women can compete equally, in general because of strength factors." (Tennis and golf, he says, are exceptions.)

Future generations should have less trouble competing with members of the opposite sex "because they'll be used to it," predicts Ross Merrick, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. Since the passage of Title IX in 1972 (prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded programs), girls have had increased access to athletic programs -- particularly at the primary and secondary levels -- and there has been an increase in coed physical education classes.

"When they first started mixed classes it was a little awkward," he admits, "basically because it was new. But now the kids play soccer, badminton, you name it together, and they do just great. If a boy used to feel any stigma over losing to a girl it's been greatly diminished.

"Sure, a guy might get razzed if he loses to a girl. But when the fellow who did the razzing gets whipped by her, too, you can bet he never does it again."