Schlepping Through Heartbreak

Making sense and bouncing back when the one you love leaves

Tit for Tat!

The prisoner's dilemma in couples

During the past few weeks, the same phase has kept coming up in my couple sessions, “Tit for Tat," so I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what that means in relationships. My clients have been using it three ways: 1) as a way of describing a competition in which each is trying to prove to the other that they have done more or have a harder life, 2) the tendency to disagree with whatever your partner says so he/she can’t lord it over you and 3) as a way of describing the good will balance—I’ll do for you if you do for me.

Couple Arm-Wrestling
The tit for tat accounting highlights the underlying power balance that exists in all relationships which, although not invisible, is often unspoken until resentment erupts. Every relationship contains a dynamic of competitiveness vs. selflessness. In highly competitive couples, every gesture is marked on a giant scoreboard. “Look at all I do for you! Now, you owe me and should do for me!” but frustratingly, the other doesn’t see it the same way.

There’s a constant mental assessment of the value of what is done. In a typical scenario, a wife might think that although she isn’t employed outside the home, her life of taking care of a demanding baby and running a household is much more stressful than that of her husband, who gets to leave in the morning to go out into the adult world to work. From his point of view, her day is picnic compared to the pressure he is under to do his job and make a living that supports the family.

When they get together at the end of the day, each wants sympathy and support from the other but is unlikely to get it because of the resentment that has already built up from feeling that his or her day has been so hard. The hidden thought is, “What are you complaining about? Do you know what I’ve been going through?” So they are not disposed to give much when they feel they are not getting enough in return.

A variation of this is the knee jerk reaction that is so prevalent in couples to not let the other be right. No matter what the other has to say, the tendency is to disagree, even if, had someone else said it, you’d agree. You just don’t want to give him or her the satisfaction of being right because of the competitive environment in the household. If you did, the fear is that the other would be smug and superior, so no matter what’s said, you’re programmed to disagree.

A classic part of game theory is called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It works on the following principle: two men accused of collaborating in committing a crime are put in separate rooms and asked to tell their story of what happened. However, the consequence of what they say is that if one blames the other and the other pleads innocent, the latter is sentenced to a long prison term and the former is set free. If they both do not implicate the other, each is sentenced to a minimal prison term. If they both blame each other, they are sentenced to a moderate term. The theory behind it is that by cooperating, they pay a small price, but not as small as if one rats out the other, more kindly accomplice, and gets off free.

How this relates to couples is that very often neither is willing to acknowledge the struggles of the other, which, if they both did, would lead to the best home environment. They are not willing to provide that encouragement because they are hoping for the big pay-off—the spouse conceding that your life is harder than his or hers so they keep trying to force the other to give them that elusive “win,” which keeps the tension sizzling in the air.

So, if you live in a “tit for tat” couple, isn’t it time to re-think that strategy? Maybe you need a good talk and suggest that you both come onto the same side—you know, “it’s me and you against the world, babe!”

I’m a family therapist and the author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal and My Sister, My Self: The Surprising Ways that Being an Older, Middle, Younger or Twin Shaped Your Life.

I can be found online at www.vikkistark.com and www.runawayhusbands.com.

Vikki Stark, M.S.W. is a family therapist, educator and director of the Sedona Counselling Centre. She authored Runaway Husbands and My Sister, My Self.

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