Dear Bonnie,
My husband and I have a weekly golf date with another couple.  When we started playing together, my husband and John had similar handicaps, as did Mary and me. In order to add a little flavor to the game, we agreed the couple with the lowest cumulative score would buy a round of drinks afterward.  This has worked well because it’s always been a toss-up as to which couple would end up buying the drinks.   However, over the past year there has been a couple of changes.
I’ve been working on my game for several months and currently play a little better than Mary.  This has resulted in my husband and I winning a majority of the weekly rounds.  It’s not a given we will win, but it’s more likely since my game has improved.  Unfortunately, John’s attitude toward me seems to have changed along with my scores.  He has started sprinkling little comments, regarding my play, throughout the round.  He didn’t used to do that when Mary and I played at the same level.  I am starting to believe he has become resentful towards me for playing better and is trying to throw me off my game with his remarks.  I think he is trying to mentally manipulate me.
Do you have any advice as to how I can get him to stop with the comments?  I am good friends with Mary and would still like to continue our weekly foursome.  I do not want to talk with him about it because I am afraid he may have a defensive reaction causing the situation to become too uncomfortable for us to continue.

I can offer three options for confronting your situation.  The first option is to calmly talk with John and let him know his remarks are making you uncomfortable. I know this option doesn’t currently appeal to you, however, if you should change your mind and decide to talk with him, you will want to be emotionally prepared for any response he gives, which could include, anger, defensiveness, or wanting to call off the games.  I offer you decide ahead of time how you want to respond to any of these emotions he may exhibit in the discussion.

It is also possible the meanings you are attaching to his comments are not accurate.  We can never know with certainty what another person is thinking.  When we attach our meanings to the actions of others, there is always the possibility we have it wrong.  If you decide to talk with him, there is a chance John could respond favorably by truthfully saying he didn’t realize his words were bothering you, sincerely apologizing and saying he will stop making what he thought were merely humorous comments.

The second option is to set a boundary regarding his remarks.  In setting boundaries, it is best to focus on what you will do, rather than demanding what another person should do.  That’s because you do not have control over another person. You only have control over yourself and what you will do if the person continues their unwanted actions.  For instance, instead of saying, “If you don’t stop with your remarks, I will not play in the foursome anymore,” it is better, and more self-empowering, to state your boundary as, “If you choose to continue with these remarks, I will need to stop playing in our foursome.”  It’s a subtle difference in wording but can make a big difference in how the message is received.  However, since you said you would like to continue your games you, may not be ready to set this boundary.

There is a third option, which may be the most favorable and will serve you in other circumstances both on and off the course.  This option is to learn the skill of managing your mind around John’s comments and other happenings you cannot control during the game.  At present, the first step in this practice is to accept that John will most likely make comments.  Think and prepare yourself for this before you get to the course.  When John comments, don’t go there with your thoughts.  Practice focusing on your game, not him.  If you begin to negatively react to his comments in your thoughts, you are allowing him to interfere with your game.  Don’t invite him in.  You cannot control John and make him behave as you want him to, but you can learn to manage your thoughts and keep them focused on your game rather than the noises coming out of John’s mouth.

I offer you may want to think of John as providing you an opportunity to practice managing your thoughts and feelings around this and any other circumstance that comes your way.  Managing your mind takes practice, similar to practicing the mechanical skills required for golf.  When you become skilled at managing and changing your thoughts, you will be able to respond to any distracting situation, both on and off the course, with confidence and emotional agility.