What does he mean by that? Why does she always do that? What are they really up to?
We are puzzled when people’s words and actions don’t seem to make sense. In his almost-revolutionary book, GAMES PEOPLE PLAY, psychoanalyst Eric Berne, M.D., used “transactional analysis” decades ago to explain how certain patterns of behavior that seem to have one meaning/goal/intention on the surface actually serve very different purposes.
In dating, marriage, career, business, one overlooks these contradictions between surface and substance at one’s peril. Fortunately, not all “games” have ill intent.
We will by-pass the more technical elements of Berne’s book and get right to some examples he gives:
LIFE GAMES—These are long-term, going well beyond use in occasional situations:
1. Alcoholic or addict: Most alcoholics and addicts, Berne maintains, are not genetically or constitutionally compelled to follow this lifestyle, but find it pays off, not only in the temporary high and the challenges of obtaining the abused substance and of sobering up afterward, but also in the attention it gleans from others: those who play the roles of Persecutor (often a spouse), Rescuer (often a friend or doctor), Patsy (an enabler), Connection (supplier), and even Agitator (who tells the alcoholic to have “just one”). The supporting players find their roles interesting, at the least, and will often act to keep the game going even when the alcoholic or addict wants to quit. Avoid these roles.
2. Debtor: Credit cards, car payments, mortgages all serve to keep many of us in debt, the paying off of which becomes one of our constant goals. Add to these the costs of college education, and a lifetime of paying-it-off is entailed. If we cannot pay, we may play Try and Collect, where one wins by keeping the goods and services or by using various stratagems to keep the creditor at bay. If Debtor is going to be thrown out of the home, there is the remaining pleasure of trashing the place on exiting; no matter how that turns out, landlord or tenant or both may participate in Why Does This Always Happen to Me (WAHM)?
3. Kick Me: You wear a sign, metaphorically, that says, “Don’t kick me,” and yet you frequently get kicked. This becomes WAHM. Sometimes those around you put up with a lot before kicking you, and you may have to escalate your provocations to get kicked…but it is worth it, as it not only brings you attention, but it confirms the suspicion you have that the world is wicked.
4. Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch: NIGYYSOB is fun for those who like to hurt others. Smith lets Jones get away with various small “infractions,” and then suddenly becomes irate and bullying, the goal Smith had all along. This is passive-aggressive, like letting an acquaintance take advantage of you several times and then angrily terminating the relationship over one more instance, perhaps playing the next game:
5. See What You Made Me Do, SWYMMD: “You made me….I didn’t want to do it; I didn’t want to do it….” Berne gives as an example the husband who is not feeling sociable, though his wife is. She comes to him while he is doing something, asks him a question or makes a comment, and he “slips,” causing an error in what he is working on. He complains about her interruption. She apologizes, and she soon learns, as do others in the family, to leave him alone when he is engrossed, so his goal is achieved. SWYMMD on the large scale happens when one parent blames the other for how the kids turned out, and it gives at least one player the pleasure of engaging in:
6. I Told You So. Berne notes that some bosses will solicit suggestions from subordinates, taking credit when successful and playing SWYMMD should failure strike.
MARITAL GAMES—Often of high intensity, these persist longer than many others because of the “bonds of holy matrimony” and the difficulties associated with divorce:
1. Corner: The couple is about to do something supposedly both want, when one of them brings up a distasteful subject that ends up stopping the activity. The originator of this topic may be sabotaging the endeavor or the recipient may be, by over-reacting to it. In either case, the seeming agreement on engaging in the activity is false: one or both really don’t want to do it, but cannot say so candidly.
2. Courtroom: The couple bring their disagreement(s) to a third party and argue it out unsatisfactorily, with each side bringing up new issues if the original ones seem to be being resolved. They like the attention, and they do not intend to compromise to settle their issues. Kids like to play this, with complaints about siblings to be adjudicated by Mother.
3. Frigid Woman: The husband’s sexual advances are repulsed repeatedly, and eventually he stops. Wife at some later time gets sexy with him, perhaps parades nearly naked in front of him, seeming to invite him, only to turn on him if he does get frisky, claiming that this is all he is interested in, etc. Presumably, modern marriages are also open to Frigid Man, as well. The intense frustration this can create may lead to Uproar, where both separate angrily, sparing each the need to participate in sex. Berne notes that each spouse may have chosen the other while actually recognizing that there would be little or no sex in the marriage. If she knows what she is doing, Frigid Woman is a wicked tease.
4. Harried: One spouse (usually the wife) takes on more and more responsibilities until one day, or on several days, she breaks down and gets nothing done. Bed rest or hospitalization may be called for. Responsibilities need to be re-negotiated.
5. If It Weren’t For You: Either spouse can play. If he hadn’t married, he’d have become…. If it weren’t for her husband, she would have…. A woman who is uncomfortable with being free to choose various options may select for a husband a domineering man who will limit them, often within the sphere she actually prefers. A husband who lacks the talent, drive, or good-fortune to have the level of success he hoped for may blame it on his wife or on the children, perhaps hoping to get something from them by using the guilt he lays on them.
6. Look How Hard I’ve Tried: One party to the relationship may want out but not want to admit that. Instead, he or she will go along with several activities or approaches to try to “save” the relationship, but actually pursue these only half-heartedly, and then point to the (unsuccessful) efforts to claim innocence. Kids can convert this into I Am Helpless or I Am Blameless, where their efforts are “understandably” ineffective. Other variants include this game’s being played by those who know they are frail/sick/incompetent, but use their seeming “extra effort” as leverage to get more than an appropriate level of appreciation or sympathy.
7. Sweetheart: “Isn’t that right, Sweetheart?” So says one member of a couple to the other in the presence of a third party, where what is “right“ is a subtly derogatory comment. “Sweetheart” is left uncertain whether to object to the comment, which may have some truth to it, and is reluctant to seem hostile to someone addressing her “affectionately” in public. Berne maintains that many such “Sweethearts” choose to marry men who will expose them publicly. Berne suggests the response, “Yes, Honey!” said ironically or even sarcastically.
Berne lists about 100 “games,” many of them recognizable because of the names he applies to them: Ain’t It Awful, Blemish, Schlemiel, Why Don’t You—Yes But, Let’s You and Him Fight, I’m Only Trying to Help You, Stupid, Wooden Leg, Happy to Help, They’ll Be Glad They Knew Me, these last two being in the subset of his “GOOD GAMES.”
Ain’t It Awful: The worse it is, the more exciting it is to talk about it!
Blemish: The “players do not feel comfortable with a new person until they have found his blemish.” Doing so makes them feel better about themselves.
Schlemiel: He will “inadvertently” screw up or even enjoy causing you problems, until you finally say you have had enough, at which point you have become the “bad person” for being critical or unsympathetic or whatever.
Why Don’t You—Yes, But: The Complainer presents a problem and others suggest solutions, none of which are acceptable to the Complainer, who may indeed have tried them, may be sincerely looking for help, but often is just passing the time or seeking sympathy.
Let’s You and Him Fight: Classically, “as a maneuver, it is romantic. The woman maneuvers or challenges two men into fighting with the implication of promise that she will surrender herself to the winner.” If she fulfills her bargain, Berne classifies this as an honest transaction, and we all hope they live happily ever after. If she takes off with a third party while the other two are fighting, well…. C’est la vie. C’est l’amour! That’s life! That’s love!
The late great American sports writer Grantland Rice penned the following:
For when the One Great Scorer
Comes to mark against your name,
He writes—not that you won or lost—
But how you played the game.
However, before we leave this Earth, most of us probably would prefer to have won than lost. To improve our chances, we need to be aware of the games people play.
Dr. Cooper (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired scientist, now a writer, editor, and writing coach. His first book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, was published by Outskirts Press in 2011 and is available from Outskirts Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, in paperback and ebook formats, also available are two memoirs he subsequently co-authored, The Shield of Gold and Kidnapped Twice, and two memoirs he edited, High Shoes and Bloomers and But…at What Cost. On Twitter, he’s @douglaswcooper. His editing and coaching site is http://writeyourbookwithme.com.