Normally I hate articles and books about how "Men do this, women do this, relationships are like this, and unless you're like this you're going to wind up like THIS," because typically they are boring, disingenuous, never effective, dehumanizing, cash-grabby, and dumb. But though obviously all relationships are different because all people are different (!!!!!!!), I'll concede that there are certain behaviors that most of us fall into from time to time. Case in point: the old I-will-die-before-I-do-those-fucking-dishes-one-more-time stalemate.

You know. Like when there's a sink full of moldy dishes from last week's lentil feed, and in his head the man is all, "I'm not washing those dishes because I cooked the fucking lentils AND I did the dishes the last four times before that AND I mowed the lawn and got a bug on me," and in her head the woman is all, "I'm not washing those dishes because I'm tired from winning bread all day AND I'm the only one who ever washes out the French press AND he watched the Game of Thrones finale without me while I was at the gym." And so they just sit there on the couch silently hating each other until they both starve to death. Win-win.

Paula Szuchman has an interesting take over at the Daily Beast today, positing that game theory could be a useful tool in defusing such stupid marital stalemates. Szuchman writes:

Here are a few things game theory and marriage have in common:

–They both require more than one person.
–They both involve people who are trying to further their own gains but are limited by the presence of another person.
–They both offer the possibility of a "cooperative strategy," in which two parties work together to come up with a reasonable solution, and a "noncooperative strategy," where it's every man for himself.
–In both, the noncooperative option is often the most tempting, but could result in death, whereas the cooperative option is annoying, but rarely fatal.

To cooperate or not to cooperate? To budge or stand your ground? To say "OK, fine" or "not a chance"? These are questions married people find themselves asking with surprising frequency. Ideally, the answer is always cooperate, budge, and say OK. But in practice, when there's baggage involved and a history together and scars from past relationships, getting to that point takes effort.

It IS hard, right? On the one hand, I think that in relationships, both people deciding to "cooperate" is really just one person capitulating and the other person getting their way. Which can be really frustrating—especially as a feminist who's obsessively tuned to instances of women being talked-over and marginalized. But personally, I know that I have a really strong natural tendency to back down and be taken advantage of—I'm really a meek nerd at heart—which causes me to reflexively refuse to back down in a lot of dumb arguments. Which makes me kind of terrible! That's not productive either.


Szuchman's article doesn't exactly offer constructive strategies for cooperation (I think for those you're supposed to buy her book), but it does make a compelling argument for civility and pragmatism in relationships, and a glimpse at the way that our pride almost always attracts us to non-cooperative solutions. The couple in the dirty-dish stand-off, for instance:

They're playing a game of chicken, also known as brinksmanship, with the refrigerator, where the potential outcome is never again eating a home-cooked meal (never mind, hating each other). A noncooperative strategy would ensure that very result. But a cooperative strategy would lead to meatloaf, roast chicken, quinoa salad, romantic dinners, and all sorts of other great stuff that married people can enjoy if they put their minds to it.

Since, honestly, I'm probably never going to read Szuchman's book (I'M BUSY, OKAY?), I just looked up "game theory" on Wikipedia to see if it could help me cooperate better with my boyfriend. And let me tell you, I learned a lot:

The extensive form can also capture simultaneous-move games and games with imperfect information. To represent it, either a dotted line connects different vertices to represent them as being part of the same information set (i.e., the players do not know at which point they are), or a closed line is drawn around them. (See example in the imperfect information section.)

Wow. MARRIAGE SAVED. Thanks, math!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Photo credit: Perseomedusa / Stockfresh.