When, And If, The “Game” Ever Ends

Last weekend, when I was catching up with E, I told her about the guy I’ve been seeing. (You remember, the one I’m not blogging about.)

I mentioned something, it must have been a little hesitant, about the pattern of our correspondence.

“Huh,” she responded. “How long do you think that’s gonna last?”


“You know, the whole game-playing thing.”

Now might be a good time to note that in a few weeks E and her boyfriend will celebrate four years of being together.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to this for two reasons:

1) I hadn’t really considered whatever anxiety I expressed to be part of any sort of “game.” To me it just felt a natural aspect of the regular early courtship routine. You know, my life.

2) Assuming that it could be construed as “game-playing”–whatever that means–I have no idea when, or even whether, it does end.

The feeling that it might not probably comes from something I recently read: specifically, a nonfiction essay by Brian Doyle that is one of the best pieces I’ve come across in a while. (Not surprisingly, I read it in this year’s Best American Essays.) It’s called, “Irreconcilable Dissonance,” it’s about divorce, it’s about 1000 words, and each sentence is around 100.

The narrator marvels at all of the absurd explanations he’s heard people give for getting divorced: nose-picking, property taxes, compulsive watching of “The Wire.”

But the saddest reason he’s heard someone offer, he says, is that they are “tired”–because being “tired”, he writes, is simply, well, “the very essence of marriage.”

Having never been married, I won’t comment on that characterization. (Having lived with someone, though, I see where the man is coming from.)

But his conclusion is what fascinates me:

Every marriage is pregnant with divorce, every day, every hour, every minute. The second you finish reading this essay, your spouse could close the refrigerator, after miraculously finding a way to wedge the juice carton behind the milk jug, and call it quits, and the odd truth of the matter is that because she might end your marriage in a moment, and you might end hers, you’re still married. The instant there is no chance of death is the moment of death.

In other words: the only thing that sustains a relationship is the possibility that it will end.

It’s hard to argue that this is a somewhat cynical view. But, I think, it’s also a smart one.

Today a friend I spoke to on the phone told me about hooking up with a guy she liked, but who she knew wasn’t particularly interested in her.

“Don’t you think that’s crazy?” she asked. “To have such a crush on someone that you know doesn’t have a crush on you?”

I could barely comprehend her question. “Crazy?” I said. “It’s incredibly basic. We all want what we can’t have.”

Which is true, except that most of us, sooner or later, decide we’d rather have something we can have than nothing at all.

But the vague, minor mystery of whether we really can might just be an essential part of what keeps those things going.

So there is a sense in which, when it comes to romantic relationships, the game doesn’t really ever end. To be with someone is always a choice–and there is always the possibility that you, or your partner, will make another.

Of course, that possibility seems a lot greater in the beginning of things–when neither person is sure of what choice has been, will be or won’t ever get made.

The stakes are lower than they are later on, but the rules are more complicated. Because, of course, you haven’t figured them–or each other–out.

Which, it would seem, is where I’m at right now. And I’m bewildered as ever about how to play.

Last night my friend V nearly swiped my cell phone–nearly knocking over my wine glass in the process–when I casually suggested I might send the-guy-I’m-not-blogging-about a quick text.

“Should I?” I asked, pre-swipe, expecting her to respond with an approving shrug and “Sure!” or “Of course!”

Instead, she didn’t miss a beat before declaring: “Absolutely not.”

“Oh,” I said. “Good thing you’re here.”


Filed under Love Life

12 responses to “When, And If, The “Game” Ever Ends

  1. ep

    I don’t think the games ever end. They’re just… different. The rules change. You lose a few game pieces, improvise a little, but still make calculated moves designed to get improbable reactions, still get disappointed, confused, wish for a rule book, and keep playing anyway.

    I read Doyle’s lovely ten-sentence essay wondering if and when my own marriage will start to feel impregnated with the possibility of divorce. To date, it doesn’t, though there is something dreadfully true about the tired bit. And yet, something comforting as well, in being tired with someone else. I liked what Doyle’s wife says (he quotes her in the commentary) about marriage being about witness. The privilege of witnessing someone else do what it is they’re so good at, witnessing someone you love stumble and bumble and learn and then do it all over again–it’s like watching a plant grow, ever lovelier each day. (Of course this returns me to the paradox–my love of growing things, plants especially, is inextricably bound up in the imminent possibility of their death). Lovely post, E.

    • Thanks, EP. I saw that quote from Doyle’s wife and also really liked it: it is indeed a privilege, this whole business of partnership with someone. Thank you for your insightful-as-always thoughts!

  2. megan

    I don’t know, I’m not really a fan of the game metaphor. I like to think of it more as a dance, you have to feel for the right moments and know when to make the right moves. I think if one or both people are playing a game (or thinking of it as one) there is this idea that someone wins (and maybe someone loses). But in a dance, you are in it together and you don’t want to fumble it up (especially not at the beginning). And I don’t think the dance ever ends, but you can sometimes miss a step and your partner won’t ditch you on the dance floor (hopefully) whereas with a game, if you fall behind, you lose. Thanks for the post! Sorry I rarely comment, but I do read them all.

  3. j

    so i’m taking a (comedic) theater workshop in which the whole point is for you and the other “actors” to find the game and really play it and to find your pleasure in PLAYING. i have always said about myself that i just can’t play the game, but now i’m really questioning that. i’m just starting to think about how this all applies to my life, so not sure where i’m going, except to say that, maybe it’s ok to play the game, but games are supposed to be fun….if you’re gonna play, at least enjoy it?

  4. A very thoughtful post, E.

    Well, game, dance, whatever…there are always rules. For instance, I am a ballroom dancer and the rule is the guy always leads, it just doesn’t work otherwise. I like that challenge, to see if I can abide by his rules, even though, sometimes, the guy is a lousy dancer. But I never have to go home with him and a dance only lasts about four minutes.

    I think the game part usually leads to a painful end because of the competition. If it feels like a game to me, I am out of there, pronto. I certainly didn’t use to be this way—the game was a high for me. Now I only give one chance, hear one lie, one deception, one denial, or have one sick feeling before I say nope, not for me. I am so much healthier.

  5. megan

    maybe it’s because i’m a newly-married, but i think if you spend your marriage as if each moment is ripe with the possibility of divorce, that is — i hope we can all agree — depressing. of *course* everyone should understand that you can’t just do whatever the fuck you want and not pay any mind to your partner and expect them to stick around til kingdom come. i guess if what doyle means is the minute you stop thinking about your relationship as a living thing that requires care, it’ll shrivel up and die, then sure, i’ll go with that. but people don’t divorce people for picking their noses — they spout shit when they can’t put their finger on what’s been so wrong for so long.

    but you should have a clue if you’re with the kind of person who could out of the blue close the refrigerator and tell you it’s over. the main ingredient there is trust. and the seasoning is self-awareness. god help us if we’re playing games in our long-term relationships — maybe that’s why people get tired? who has the time or energy for that? enjoy it the best you can. enjoy each other the best you can.

    and i’m no expert in boys, let’s be clear. but i think if you want to text the dude, you text him. if he doesn’t like you texting him so much? let him be a big boy and tell you so. obsessing is part of the fun of the beginning.

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