Simplifying, there are two ways into a romantic relationship and the most popular one is the most dangerous:
The first approach is people’s romantic preference, a beeline from love at first sight to happily ever after. We go on dates with our best feet forward, doing our best to please and delight each other. We make each other feel exceptional, buttering each other up, sometimes by talking about other lesser people, our exes for example who blew our minds by suddenly turning into narcissists, not like us generous types.
Delighting each other, we’re building rapport, but we’re also building dependency. Mutual admiration is an addictive drug. The stakes on keeping it running smoothly go way up and then when it stops running smoothly we’re ill prepared. We only know how to talk to our partners when they’re feeling generous and we’re feeling calm, not when suddenly we’re both of us are feeling threatened in a high stakes conflict. Who is this person we’re already in this deep with? Clearly, another narcissist.
Sustainable relationships depend on three compatibilities:
Autonomy is what we’ve already got when entering into relationship. Basic compatibility is what we cultivate. Delighting each other we cultivate that heady impression that we’re compatible across the board as though compatibility will see us through thick and there will be no thin.
But no one is compatible on all fronts. Living in our world now rich in lifestyle options, compatibilities will tend to shift over time as we gravitate toward different options. There will be incompatibilities.
We’d like to think the rapport we build will see us through, but it’s amazing how fast it can vaporize, especially in a late-blooming, high-stakes, flash fight. We were reasonable back when give and take was easy but suddenly it’s hard. Conversation has become a winner-takes-all infallibility contest. We’re each fighting for our dignity’s life, grasping at any argument we think can buy us even a moment’s credibility, incredible arguments, the kind made by narcissists. It becomes tit for tat down the tube toward ever-more degenerate attack and self-defense.
How did we fall so fast so deep?
If you’ve heard anything about game theory, you’ve heard about the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the winning Tit for Tat strategy. The prisoner’s dilemma is a game representative of a lot of common human interaction in which two players have the choice to either cooperate or defect. Robert Axelrod set up a tournament pitting playing strategies against each other in the game played over and over. The tournament’s winning strategy was called Tit-for-tat: Start out cooperating and only defect if your opponent defects first.
Tit for tat may seem a strong argument for our “Never is heard a discouraging word” strategy in romance. Two tit-for-tatters will just keep cooperating with each other, from cooperate at first sight to cooperate ever after.
But tit for tat is a weak argument at best. In the game as Axelrod constructed it, players always know definitive whether they’ve been tatted. In real life you don’t. Sometimes we think our partners have defected when they haven’t. Then we defect ,tit for tat and we’re off to the races. Call it a mistat—if you misinterpret your partner’s gesture as a defection, an offense against you then, tit for tat you’ll offend back. With mistats—very common in real life—each party thinks the other party defected first.
In the game of love, I’m opting for the second strategy. I assume I don’t know who I’m dating until I’ve seen the whites of her woeful, frustrated, disappointed, angry eyes, and what comes after, her strategy for negotiating the moment’s incompatibility, and what comes out after she’s calmed down. I assume she doesn’t know me either until she’s seen me in that state.
Only then can we both begin to guess whether we have compatibility in how we negotiate the incompatibilities, that most important third factor we tend to overlook on our romantic quest for happily ever after.