More on Marital Games


From Eric Berne’s Games People Play

If it Weren’t For You. This is a typical marital game. Mrs. White complained that her husband severely restricted her social activities so that she had never learned to dance. At some point the husband became less sure of himself and more indulgent. Mrs. White at that point is free to enlarge the scope of her activities. She signs up for dancing classes but then discovers to her despair that she had a morbid fear of dance floors and ends up abandoning the project. This unfortunate adventure, along with similar ones, exposed some important aspect of the structure of her marriage. Out of many suitors she had picked a domineering man for her husband. She was then in a position to complain that she could do all sorts of things ‘if it weren’t for you”. Many of her women friends also had domineering husbands and would often get together for a game of “if it wasn’t for him”. As it turns out, however, her husband is performing a very real service for her by forbidding her to do something she is deeply afraid of and by preventing her from becoming aware of her fears. But to the woman, marriage has proven one thing “all men are mean and tyrannical”

As long as the husband is prohibitive the game can proceed. If instead of saying “Don’t you dare!” he says “Go ahead!” the underlying phobias are unmasked and the wife can no longer turn on him. In other words, game over.

Harried. This is a typical housewife game. Her life requires her to be ten or twelve different things, often at once: mistress, mother, housemaid, nurse, etc. Now if the wife is able to find satisfaction in this while doing her best, she may be able to enjoy her 25 years and see her youngest child go off to college with a pang of loneliness. But if, on the other hand, she is driven by her inner Parent (the part of our Ego that represents our parents) and called to account by a critical husband, she may grow more and more unhappy. What to do? Let’s play Harried. In this game the wife takes on everything that comes and even asks for more. She agrees with her husband’s criticism and accepts all her children’s demands. If she has to entertain at dinner, she not only feels she must function impeccably as conversationalist, interior decorator, caterer, glamour girl, virgin queen and diplomat, she will also volunteer that morning to bake a cake a take the children to the dentist. Then in the middle of the afternoon she justifiably collapses and nothing gets done. Her self-reproaches adds to her misery. After this happens two or three times, her marriage is in jeopardy, the children are confused, she loses weight, her hair is untidy, her face is drawn and her shoes are scuffed.

How not to play the game: ask for help and be able to accept it. If the wife is playing Harried, it will be hard for her to stick to this principal. It is important to mention here, that the culprit is more likely the wife’s parent and not the husband. Harried, can quicly progress to divorce.

Look how hard I’ve tried. This is a game played with three characters, husband wife and the therapist. The couple is having trouble in their marriage and have come to therapy. The husband (usually) is bucking for a divorce while the wife genuinely wants to work things out. The husband comes to therapy under protest and talks just enough to demonstrates to the wife that he’s cooperating; usually he plays a mild game of Courtroom. As times passes he exhibits either resentful pseudo-compliance or belligerent argumentativeness towards the therapist. After 5 or 6 visits, he refuses to come any longer and goes hunting or fishing instead. The wife is then “forced” to file for divorce. The husband is now blameless since the wife has taken the initiative. He is in a good position to say to any attorney, judge or friend: Look how hard I’ve tried”

Once the therapist realizes the husband is playing this game, the wife should be seen alone, on the valid ground that the husband is not ready for therapy. He can still get a divorce but only at the expense of abandoning his position that he’s really trying.

In everyday form this is observed in children as a two-handed game with one parent. It is played from two positions: “I’m helpless”-child tries but is unsuccessful so the parent has to do it for him. “I’m blameless”-the parent has no reasonable ground for punishing him.

Sweetheart. Mr. White makes a subtly derogatory remark about Mrs. White, disguised as an anecdote, and ends: “Isn’t that right, sweetheart?” Mrs. White tends to agree for two reasons: a) because the anecdote itself, in the main, is accurately reported and b) because it would seem rude to disagree with a man who calls her sweetheart in public. The psychological reason for her agreement however is her depression position: Mr. White would expose her flaws thus saving her from having to do it herself. Her parents may have “accommodated” her in the same way perhaps.

The anti-sweetheart, or refusal to play would sound like this: “you can tell derogatory anecdotes about me, but please don’t call me sweetheart”. A more sophisticated and less dangerous antithesis is to reply “yes honey”. In another form, the wife instead of agreeing, responds with a similar sweetheart type anecdote about the husband “you have an ugly face too, dear”. Sometimes, the endearments are not actually pronounced but a careful listener can hear them. This is the “Sweetheart” silent type.

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