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The Zero Sum Game


You’ve most likely heard me talk about the zero sum game as being the most dangerous social strategy and the best way to ruin relationships.  But you may not know what a zero sum game actually is. In this episode I’m going to un-pack the concept for you and also tell you what the alternative is.   

A zero sum game is essentially when one person’s gain is another person’s loss.  It is an ‘I win and you lose’ scenario. Looking at this definition, you can see that it creates a social relationship that is antagonistic by its very nature.  Also, it implies a conviction to the idea that resources are finite and limited. When people think in terms of the zero sum game, they begin to interact with the world competitively instead of cooperatively.  They function selfishly instead of taking people’s best interests as a part of their own best interests. In fact people’s best interests (such as desires and needs and preferences) are viewed as a competitive threat. 

So you can get a better idea of zero sum games, I will give you a list of a few examples:

  1. A toddler is sitting in a highchair.  He says, “I’m not hungry”. His mom will not accept that his best interest is to not eat and thus rejects his truth and shoves a spoon of food in his mouth or makes him sit there until he finishes it all.  If he does, she wins and he loses.
  2. An employee demands a certain salary even though this is not in the best interests of the company at all.  He says, “pay me this or I quit”.
  3. A father decides he is uninterested in facing his personal insecurities and therefore begins to focus on one of his sons being his problem.  He turns his son into the scapegoat of the family. He designates his other son as the one who he loves and identifies with. This son has to let go of his identity to stay on his father’s good side.  He turns this son into the golden child of the family. He is in fact playing a zero sum game with both of his sons.
  4. A couple is having problems with their sex life.  The man wants more sex and the wife isn’t interested in it.  If the man demands more or else he will cheat, he is playing a zero sum game with her.  If the wife says no and he’ll just have to deal with it, she is playing a zero sum game with him.
  5. A conversation takes place between two politicians who are in conflict.  They enter the conversation completely focused on debating to win the argument and win support of the observers.  They are not interested in considering each other’s perspective. They are both interested only in their own best interests, which is why they are interested in winning the debate.  They are playing a zero sum game with each other.
  6. A person is hungry and therefore hunts and shoots an animal for food.
  7. Two opponents square off at a sports game.  There will be one winner and one loser. This is a zero sum game.  But what sets this zero sum game apart is that both have consented to potentially losing.  Neither person has been forced into a situation where they have to fight to win. Both are consciously engaging in this zero sum game for mutual best interests, such as the improvement/expansion of their craft or the mutual opportunity to add to one’s personal achievement record.

The Zero Sum Game is the hallmark of dysfunctional relationships, including dysfunctional social groups, like families.  In a dysfunctional relationship or family, the underlying emotional condition is “every man for himself.” Everyone becomes narcissistic.  But the reason that it is often hard to recognize this is that people in this kind of environment develop all kinds of different narcissistic strategies in order to get their individual needs met in this kind of environment.  For example, one person may turn into a dictator and start punishing people when they don’t cater to his or her every whim. Another might begin to self-sacrifice entirely as an attempt to see themselves and be seen as saintly.  But the strategies that people pick in order to get their individual needs met, become a lose-lose. For example if the person becomes a dictator, they win by getting their needs met but the people around them lose by having to conform or face consequences.  The person who becomes a self-sacrificer will get their self esteem, but will have to set someone in the household up as the “bad one” in order to keep that identity.  

In situations where a zero sum game is played, there is usually poor understanding and development of boundaries. To understand boundaries in depth, watch my video titled: Personal Boundaries Vs. Oneness (How To Develop Healthy Boundaries).  Part of what comes along with boundaries is personal best interests. Why should be concerned with best interests? Because the best definition of trust is to rely upon someone to capitalize on your best interests. Essentially trust happens when someone takes your best interests as a part of their own best interests.  By definition, this gives rise to a commitment to a win-win. Therefore, a zero sum game by definition destroys trust.  

Trust and love are the most important things in a relationship.  In a zero sum game, neither trust nor love is actually present, regardless of whether people are saying, “I love you and you can trust me.”  It is by definition an unsafe relationship. To understand more about trust and love, watch my videos titled: What is Love and How To Have a Safe Relationship.  There may be situations in life where it is not possible to find a win-win. In these cases, the issue is incompatibility. What makes a relationship safe when there is incompatibility is for both people or both sides to decide together about what to do with that incompatibility.  They still take the other’s best interests as a part of their own, but both look for the closest win-win scenario they can find given the incompatibility.  For example, if there is no win-win for a couple staying together, the win-win becomes about the highest and best way to part ways for both of them.  

People who have learned to play zero sum games in relationships often do not recognize or accept incompatibility.  They want to stay in a relationship regardless of whether the relationship is bad for the other person or not. Incompatibility is a critical thing to understand if you wish to end zero sum games.  For this reason, watch my video titled: Incompatibility, A Harsh Reality In Relationships.                             

 In order to end the zero sum games in any relationship, your need for ‘peace’ and ‘connection’ and ‘mutual happiness’ have to be stronger than whatever other need you are fighting for.  The one exception to this rule is seen with triangulation. When people triangulate, they get their need for connection and closeness with someone met by playing a zero sum game against someone else.  

The worst thing about a zero sum game is that the minute someone begins to play one, it puts you in a lose-lose.  If you don’t fight for your own best interest, you lose. If you do, you’re now in a war where both of you will get hurt even if you are the one who wins.  

Integration is the end of the zero sum game.  The way to end zero sum games is to take another being’s best interests as a part of your own.  If you do this, you will see that hurting them will be hurting yourself and hurting yourself will be hurting them.  It is to commit yourself to finding the highest and best win-win scenario in any situation. Hold both love and trust (what love and trust actually are) as the two pillars you build your relationships between.  There is a space in between two entities called “us”. This space is where the relationship is and it is like a third entity in relationships in and of itself. It must be cared for like a child if it is to thrive.  Win-win is what strengthens this child. Win-lose and lose-lose begins to kill it off. And I must remind you that even if you ‘end’ a relationship, because that person still exists, you’re still in a relationship. It’s simply a differently configured relationship.  For example, you are now ex-partners instead of partners. And so there is still a third entity to take care of. A zero sum game should not begin if you ‘break up’ so to speak. The commitment still needs to be to the highest and best win-win that can be found.

The win-win scenario is a Third Element or third option in the situation between two opposing extremes.  If you want a life that feels good, commit in all situations to finding this Third Element.  This is very different than compromise. Compromise is a dirty word in the world of healthy relationships.  A compromise is by definition an agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.  Concessions implies giving something up that you don’t want to give up. Therefore what people are really saying when they are compromising is “I’ll take a little pain and you take a little pain.”  People can’t actually do this without it leading to resentment and other bad feelings towards the other person. In a true win-win, even if you end up giving something up, the giving up of that thing wont cause you pain.  In fact it won’t feel like you’re making a concession. It will feel like you’ve found something that is also a “yes that alternative is also good for me”!

 The zero sum game is not a relationship. It is I, me and mine.  Therefore, any time you play one; you must accept that the result of winning could be losing the relationship.  So many marriages end because of this. So many business partnerships dissolve because of this. So many parents lose their relationships with their children once they become adults because of this.  These parents spent those formative parenting years playing zero sum games with their child and calling it ‘parenting’. They spent those formative years subconsciously putting their children in the position to lose but gas-lighting them by saying “it’s good discipline”. “I’m doing this for your own good”.  “Everything I’ve ever done was for you.” And “I love you.”

In any relationship, there can be no true ‘winner’ when there is a ‘loser’.  There is only strength in a relationship if there is mutual benefit in it. As so many people who have lost relationships have found out the hard way, in a relationship if one person wins and another loses, they both lose.  Our great history of wars on this planet are perhaps the best teacher of this truth.





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