So, what does applied mathematics have to say about healthy, intimate relationships? Well, it seems to have a lot to say. One of the more interesting aspects of game theory, a branch of applied mathematics, is the distinction between zero-sum and non-zero-sum games. A good example is tennis. In singles tennis, if one player gains points the other does not--a zero-sum phenomenon. In doubles tennis, if one side gains points the other doesn't but the two players on one side do not experience the same thing. Their relationship is a non-zero-sum relationship. If one does well the other benefits and vice-versa. Their goal is to work together and against the other team. Another example can be found in the difference between money and love. If I have ten dollars and give you five, I have five left and you have an additional five--a zero-sum situation. On the other hand, if I have ten units of love and unconditionally give you five, I may well feel like I have more love because I gave you some--a non-zero-sum situation.
When couples are getting along well, their relationship is often characterized by non-zero-sum interaction. The more it is characterized that way the better they get along and the better they get along the more it will be characterized that way. However, when couples are not getting along the relationship can quickly devolve into a zero-sum situation. This is what people are referring to when they accuse their partner of "keeping score." The more committed I am to a zero-sum stance the more fear and anger I will generate in myself and my partner. Of course, the way out of this spiral is to unilaterally adopt a non-zero-sum stance.
Adopting a non-zero-sum stance will not be easy in a zero-sum circumstance. In fact, it will be painful and feel defeating in the short run. This is one of those places where doing the good and right thing may well feel unnatural. This is also one of those places where it is better to ask, "What does the relationship need?" than to ask, "What do I need?"
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 35 years.