We’ve probably all heard someone say, at one time or another, “I don’t like head games.” Be upfront, stop messing with my head! Just be honest! This is usually in the context of intimate relationships, especially romantic ones. Head games come in many forms – so many forms that I cannot even begin to list them. Just for one random example, there is a game in which we don’t say to the other person what we want to do, but rather we want them to guess what our desire is at that moment, because it will somehow be more romantic if they telepathically know what to do for us than if we have to ask, thus proving they are our soulmate! I’ll bet most all of us have played that game at least once.
The thing about games is that by definition they are supposed to have rules. It is just human instinct to want to know the rules. This starts at an extremely young age, when we are taught games like Tag or Duck Duck Goose. (Remember that one?) “Let’s play Red Rover!” “OK, how do you play?” I mean, that’s just obvious; you can’t really play if you don’t know what to do and what the object is.
When we’re adults, the games seemingly get more complicated. This is because we have more to win or lose, like potentially a life filled with love and passion, or a dream job won by playing the game of office politics. There are lots of songs about the “Game of Love”, and that’s because it’s the best, most thrilling game there is, if you let it be.
The first problem is, the Game of Love has no universally accepted rules! Oh sure, there are rules. Holy love doctor, there are rules up the wazoo. They can be found in thousands of blogs, advice columns, popular magazines, and unsolicited texts and emails from well-meaning and/or misguided friends. Even so, I think I’m safe in saying there are nearly as many sets of Relationship Rules as there are relationships. I believe everyone has their own set of rules, and the large majority of them are unwritten. (Hell, who has time to write them down? We are too busy obsessing about the object of our desire du jour.)
The second problem is, many times we do not even fully understand our own rules, let alone others. That’s because they are of course works in progress – modified daily or even by the minute depending on what worked and didn’t work during the most recent date, phone call, confrontation, etc. They are elastic yet very fragile, and most definitely made to be broken.
The third problem is, even when we are more or less deluded into believing we know our own rules, we often cannot or will not explain them to those closest to us – which is to say, the other person in our most important, intimate relationship, the one most affected by our haphazard application of our rules. Oh, what a red-letter, banner day it is when we meet our special partner on an equal footing and actually establish a mutually understood set of ground rules! If that happens, you have made it heaven, you have won the lottery, and you have had your cake and eaten it too, all at the same time!
Pop quiz, and be 100% honest with yourself: how many times has that happened to you? If more than zero times, you should in fact consider a career as an advice columnist or Love Doctor.
OK, back to reality…
So, many of us are in the boat – sort of a cross between the Love Boat and the Titanic – that is sailing through the uncharted waters of the Sea of Confusion, with no maps, compass, or sextant. [Insert here your best pun about sex and sextants.] You can set your course and set your sails, but you really don’t know where you are going or when and how you will get there.
Games, such as chess, are all about moves. You want something from your partner, or the object of your desire, but you don’t know what they are thinking or what their next “move” will be. In football, the game is about plays. In dating, you make your play, and it turns out to be a good play or a bad play.
Unfortunately, yet another type of problem arises when two people are not even in the same game. One person is playing football and the other is playing hockey. Worse, they may not even be aware it’s happening to them. For example, a woman is playing the game in which she drops hints about (but does not explicitly say she wants) the weekend at the Bed & Breakfast as a gift for her birthday, whereas her guy is playing the game in which he invents a reason why work will take him out of town that weekend, so he can’t go, but in reality he is playing in a golf tournament with his buddies. (And no, I have never done that, but I swear I heard a story very close to that situation.) Two players, different games.
Yes, it can be totally frustrating when we don’t know the rules of the game, another person will not tell us their rules, or worst of all, we don’t even know if they are playing games with us. This usually leads us to say, “I’m not into games. I do not play games with you, so don’t play me.” That is completely understandable. And possibly completely false, because just about everyone plays games in one way or another, whether we know it or not.
I think what it really boils down to is that we don’t like playing games unless we can set the rules, or at least agree on them with the other player. Furthermore, we want the rules to be fair. Yet, it has been said, “All is fair in love” (and war, but let’s not go there; that movie War of the Roses was too intense). Which pretty much means nothing at all about love is fair.
My point is, since virtually everyone has their own rules, and they aren’t even written down for the most part, it may be helpful to accept that, in effect, there are no rules. It defies analysis. Truly, I am not even analyzing relationships; I’m just making observations that I hope are helpful. The trick, perhaps, is to accept the natural chaos of relationships, avoid the inclination to want codified rules, and yet continue to search for common ground and equality in our relationships. That can really only be accomplished through effective communication. If we’re lucky, we will be able to establish mutually acceptable ground rules with that one special person. But don’t hold your breath!