The Prisoner’s Dilemma: Me, You, or Us?

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Nov 22, 2022 | 0 comments

Once upon a time, two friends met on the corner of a busy city street. As they walked towards one another, they shared a nod but no greeting and walked into the flagship branch of a rather imposing bank. Once inside, Kit walked to the left while Nat went right. Each pulled out a gun and together, they robbed the bank. Inevitably, the police arrested the lifelong friends. Kit and Nat sat in separate isolation cells, cooling their heels and considering how much they cared for their personal freedom as well the freedom of their friend. A prosecutor had offered each two choices: confess or remain silent. She explained the consequences of each choice: a) confess while your friend does not, and all charges against you are dropped while your accomplice gets the maximum sentence, b) remain silent while your friend confesses, and you get the maximum sentence while your accomplice goes free, c) confess with your friend, and you both go to jail for the minimum sentence, or d) both you and your friend remain silent, and you are both brought up on weapons charges and get whatever token sentence the prosecution can manage.

This hypothetical scenario is referred to as the Prisoner’s Dilemma and it illustrates a situation in which each partner in a relationship would be individually better off by choosing him or herself. Only it would result either in hurting their partner or hurting the team. On the other hand, if each partner looks out for the other, they have the best chance of minimizing harm to themselves and to each other. If Nat remains silent for Kit’s sake, and Kit remains silent for Nat’s sake, both get token sentences. Together they suffer less than if they had turned on each other or if they had confessed together.

We face this choice in myriad ways throughout our relationships and our typical patterns of choosing between ourselves, our partners, or the team often dictates the quality and the strength of our relationship. I often encourage couples to view their relationship as a third living being in their home and then pose the question: For a relationship to be healthy, whose needs should be put first? Yours, your partners, or the relationship’s? Some might answer that the relationship should come first, assuming that if both parties compromise, everyone will be happy. Others might argue that one should always make sure their own needs are met, as we are responsible for our own happiness and two individually happy adults will be happy together. Still others may suggest that one should focus on meeting their partner’s needs, that giving happiness to their partner will lead to happiness for themselves thereby leading to a healthy relationship. 

The first choice demands that both partners compromise. Compromise is often sold as the secret ingredient in a long and happy relationship. However, years of compromise on both sides equals years of unmet needs for both partners. The idea that forgoing your own fulfillment is somehow made easier by the knowledge that your partner is equally deprived is essentially suggesting that because misery loves company, two unhappy people can be happy together. If you refuse to compromise, and focus on your personal happiness while trusting that your partner will do the same for themselves, you run the risk of being in a relationship that rapidly becomes a land mine of competing needs and trespassing partners. The third option, to focus solely on making your partner happy while they focus on making you happy sounds like it has potential. But it creates the risk of everyone feeling like a martyr since it is only natural that each party will evaluate their own contribution as being more meaningful. 

What then, is the formula for building a happy and healthy relationship in which all parties feel valued, loved, and fulfilled? A useful and sometimes new formula for couples is to look for EQUITY, not EQUALITY. Equity means each partner gets what is most essential for them to feel fulfilled in the relationship. Equality means both partners get exactly the same, regardless of what their actual needs may be. Equity minimizes the demand for compromise, while equality rests on everyone giving up a little. In this version, each partner looks out for the best interest of the other while also being able to ask for and receive what they want. 

So what happens when both parties have competing needs at the same time? Minimize harm. The partner who will suffer some fundamental violation of their values or greater harm gets priority. You may like the idea of sharing your love of hunting with your partner while your partner objects to hunting based on religious values. In this case, the potential violation of deeply held religious beliefs trumps disappointment in not being able to share a favorite hobby. Of course, the equation of equity and minimizing harm must be a reciprocal one. 

The answer to me, you, or us? All of the above.


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