Love: The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Old Posts

I can guess how this sounds, but love relationships remind me of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Two conspirators are arrested and brought into separate interview rooms. They are both given the opportunity to turn state’s witness against the other. The one that takes the deal goes free, and the other gets ten years. If both confess, each gets six years. If they both refuse, they both get six months.

If I was in this situation, my answer would depend on the nature of the alliance I had developed with my partner in crime. In every relationship there are multiple opportunities in which we choose to either cooperate with the other or go our own way. Most of these occasions don’t have the consequence of being sentenced to prison for ten years, but you get the sense of a person’s loyalty if they pick up the check at the diner when you plan the crime, bring their own burglary tools, and take off in the getaway car before you get in. You also get an idea of the cost of betrayal when you scarf up the tip he left, bend his best lock pick, and arrive late because you couldn’t decide on a color for a ski mask.

Every one of these tests is a miniature prisoner’s dilemma and every one of these tests is found almost continuously in every kind of relationship. Temptations abound, no matter where you are, especially in love. Do you steal the blanket? Put the seat down for her? Do you give her the first piece of toast in the morning? Do the dishes? Get up to answer the phone even when you know it’s for her? When she tells you about that dress she’s going to buy do you really pay attention, or just nod and smile? When she’s not listening do you talk about her with respect? Do you flirt when she’s not looking? Are you adult enough to admit there’s adultery afoot?

We form alliances because we get a better reward when we both cooperate, but it’s inevitable that every alliance is going to be violated in some way. It is impossible to go along with every little thing your partner wants. How are these inevitable violations handled? When you tug the blanket, does she tug back? Does she go all ape shit when you pee on the seat? When you put the seat down for her, does she put it up for you? Does she put the flirting in perspective, forgive the adultery? If she does, does it make her a patsy? If she doesn’t, is she just being a bitch?

Scientists have studied the prisoner’s dilemma by having players adopt certain strategies to see which win most often. Some will always cooperate, no matter how strong the temptation. Those players end up exploited. Their partners have no reason to play along since there is no penalty for failing. Others never work together with their partners, they give in to temptation every time. No one ends up trusting them. They say the winning strategy is called Tit-for-Tat: cooperate every time until your partner fails to, then punish him by withholding cooperation at the next opportunity. This will teach him a thing or two.

There’s one problem with that, though. We believe we are much better at detecting when we lose our partner’s engagement than we really are. The next time you are having a conversation with someone, watch her and you will see there are moments that she does not appear to pay attention, a minor violation in the alliance that could really piss you off. The thing is, she might actually be paying attention, or she might be the kind that can pay attention to two things at once. Ask her what you just said and you might be surprised that she can repeat it word for word.

There are times, though, that she can’t. You lost her; she tuned out, spaced out, went blank. It happens. If you taped it, hit the rewind, and play it back, you might discover something. You were boring. You went on and on and were inattentive to non-verbal cues that she wanted to participate in the conversation. Or you made your point in such a way that she couldn’t follow. Each of these errors is a violation of the alliance. You broke faith before she did.

We have built in, exquisite instruments that detect betrayal so sensitively calibrated that we are always chasing false alarms. What’s more, the instrument does not work on the operator. You don’t know when you are doing it. There’s a moral to the story. When you believe that your partner is violating your alliance, look to see if maybe you did so first.

 

 

The Rock Tumbler

Old Posts

Back when my son was a child, he used to dig holes in the back yard. He would adopt stones that he liked and would line the shelves of his room with them. His mother used to complain of the grime he brought into the house, until, noting a sustained interest in geology; we got him a rock tumbler.

You may have had some dealings with a rock tumbler. It’s basically a drum attached to a small motor by way of a belt that rotates incessantly all the live long day. Put a few dull, brown, craggy, soil caked rocks in the drum, add a bit of water, shut the hatch, turn on the motor, and you can keep the whole family from sleeping for a week. When your Dad yells at you to turn the damn thing off so he can get some rest, you open it, reach in, and your unremarkable stones have transformed into smooth, radiant gems.

There’s a rock tumbler for people, too; a people tumbler. We call it love. Continue reading

The People of the Mind

As if it wasn’t hard enough to deal with the people who hurt you, you also have to deal with their representatives you carry around in your head. Actual people you can divorce, send to jail, move across the country and never see again; the people of the mind follow you, they share your bed despite divorce. Regardless of orders of protection, they dog your footsteps, day and night. It’s imperative you find a way to cope with these imaginary people or they will do you more harm than the real ones ever could. Continue reading

Take Out the Garbage

I once facilitated a group for people recovering from severe mental illnesses. We met once a week and they talked about how things were going for them. They tried to support each other. One day a member of the group came in and said his landlord was going to evict him if he failed to clean his apartment. Landlords can do that if the apartment is really bad. We knew that just talking about it and offering moral support was not going to help him much, so, the next week, we all went to his place to help him clean. In the end, he got to keep his apartment and I got a story about letting go. Continue reading

The Re-Negotiated Relationship

Once you’re in a relationship with someone, you’ll always be in a relationship with that person. It’s like the Hotel California, you can never leave. I don’t care if you never speak to her again, if you move to the other side of the world, and put up a dartboard with her face on it; you’ll always be in relationship. There will always be a corner of your brain, I dare say, a corner of your heart, that has her name on it. Continue reading