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Beware of the Zero-Sum Game

Do you find yourself locked in battles with your spouse or partner where one must lose for the other to win? If so, you are probably caught in a zero-sum game. The zero-sum game is probably the best-known game theory concept. In such a contest, each side wants to maximize its own payoff and prevent the opponent from achieving anything. Football is a zero-sum game: when the Jaguars win, the Tennessee Titans lose. However, in an intimate relationship, a zero-sum game can be disastrous. “Winning” at the cost of your spouse or partner erodes trust and leads to your partner feeling defeated, bitter, and resentful. And, ultimately, no one wants a partner who feels defeated.

The evidence is devastating and clear. Couples in low-trust relationships (the result of a zero-sum game) have a higher death rate than others. Doctors John Gottman, Robert Levenson, and Laura Carstensen found, in a twenty-year study of older couples, that more of the couples in zero-sum relationships dropped out of the study than did others. These were the partners who, when the tapes were rolling during their conflict conversation, treated each other like adversaries. Gottman assumed that they dropped out because they found participation too unpleasant to continue—or had split up and didn’t want to look back. However, Dr. Tara Madhyastha conducted additional research and uncovered a grimmer explanation for the absent subjects. When she categorized the couples based solely on their conflict discussions, she discovered that a shocking number of zero-sum husbands were dead. Over the twenty years, their mortality rate was 58 percent, compared with 23 percent for men in cooperative marriages. Here’s another way to look at it: If the couple had a zero-sum conflict conversation at the start of the study, then even when they accounted for age and other factors that affect health, the husband’s odds of dying over those twenty years were eleven times higher than men in mutually cooperative relationships. Being in a miserable marriage takes a toll on women, too. The wives who engaged in zero-sum conflict reported more psychological and physical health symptoms than the other women.

So, how do you move out of the zero-sum game? The answer is… by creating win-win scenarios, rather than win-lose scenarios. That involves truly listening to your partner’s deeper needs, accepting influence from your partner, keeping their best interests at heart, and trying to find a compromise that honors both of your needs or dreams. If you need help with that, you may consider talking with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in couple therapy.

© 2024 Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT, dba Happy Couples Healthy Communities