I used to have a secretary who was given to being late. This was a nuisance for me because I needed to review the post before my first meetings. Admittedly she had a tricky journey, but on three days out of five she never quite made it. And I noticed that she was inclined to miss office deadlines – there was always some problem which held her up at the last moment. Never her fault. Had I known her later in life – when I had had the experience of being a marriage counsellor – I would have quickly realised that this was a pattern. Something in her character or circumstances was causing her to behave in this way.
Or as the psychiatrist, the late Eric Berne, would have said, she was playing a game. That sounds callous but he wasn’t talking about deliberately inappropriate behaviour – rather, that she was satisfying some unconscious need. One client of mine had just such a pattern. Her early relationships, I learnt, had usually been with people who had disabilities of one kind or another. Her troubled marriage was with an alcoholic husband, and her current occupation was assisting in a mental home. You will not be surprised that I concluded that she had a deep need for “lame dogs” for whom she could care.
Those clear-cut examples would be misleading if we thought that such games were confined to damaged personalities. Unfortunately, at some level between the trivial and disastrous, they occur all the time, and to most of us. And they tend to have a negative effect on our relationships. Let’s take a straightforward example. It’s called “Yes But”.
John has problems with insomnia. One day – when he is complaining that he doesn’t know how to solve the problem – Mary makes some suggestions. “Why don’t you try going to bed earlier?” she says. And John replies: “Yes, but if I do, you’ll wake me when you come up.” An unlimited number of other suggestions are then made, and to each the response is “Yes but…” Eventually Mary runs out of ideas, and is silent. John has won the game – no one can help him.
“Yes But” can apply to the widest range of circumstances. Finding a job, mowing the lawn, buying a new bra – you name it. In each case an apparent request for help is used to establish that no help is possible. But the game is usually less damaging than another: “See What You Made Me Do”. This comes in two versions.
John is putting a fiddly screw into a light plug. Mary pops in and asks: “Does my skirt look right from the back?” The screwdriver slips, the screw jumps and disappears into a floorboard crack. “See what you made me do!” The second version (sometimes known as “If It Weren’t For You”) is more dangerous. The couple are worried about the expense of education. Eventually Mary says: “Of course, if you hadn’t persuaded me not to go back to work, it wouldn’t have been a problem.” And it is now no longer a problem for her; she has transferred it neatly to John.
With increasing age I am looking forward to playing “Wooden Leg” more frequently. This requires a disability, either physical or mental. What do you expect of a man with a wooden leg, or in my case, a man of my age? I am glad to see that my children collude. If anything, they seem rather too anxious to see me becoming too old to be competent. My wife, who is phobic about putting anyone to trouble in helping her, is just the opposite. The only time I thought she might be playing “See What You Made Me Do” she won the game with several weeks in an emergency ward. The counter to “what do you expect of a man with a wooden leg” is, Berne tells us, “what do you expect of yourself?”
Berne was best known in his profession for the concept of Transactional Analysis. This remains a useful key to understanding how we relate to each other, and, in a variety of forms, is used to assist in the therapy of both individuals and organisations. It is based on the concept of ego states – parent, adult and child – which we adopt in any given social transaction. The games I have described are illustrations of what may happen when two people interact, using inappropriate ego states. Thus in “Yes But” (above) the couple pretends that they are acting as adult to adult, but psychologically they are acting as parent to child. When they realise and re-adjust, the transaction is abandoned or becomes potentially fruitful.
In the counselling room I saw many games being played before my eyes. But the most valuable clues lay in games, of all sorts and sizes, which occurred again and again over time. Sometimes analysis was not required and drawing attention to a pattern was enough for the client to recognise it, and to set about correction.
Berne’s book, Games People Play, describing a whole range of games, is still available at a modest price for those who would like to explore further. But I hope that no one who has read this far will not have recognised some of the games, and indeed have begun to think of other games which they have encountered. I am not going to tell you which out of the samples I have described I am best at playing myself. Be content with the fact that, whenever I explore this territory, I come away a wiser man.