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How improvisational theater helps us have better relationships

“In improv, the whole thing is that it is a relationship between the two people, as a back and forth.” John Oliver

A lesson from improvisational theatre helps us to automatically be better partners, find common ground, and avoid surprising breakups.

When we are in love, we idealize our partner. While that is a great thing, it has its downsides. For example, we might overestimate our partner’s ability to tell us exactly what they need, right when they need it. When they compromise, we think that they warn us before it becomes too much to bear. Our partner, on the other hand, might suffer quietly, believing that we are indifferent to their needs and that we take them for granted. Eventually, they break up with us, and we are shocked.

Often, we ponder, “If only they had talked to us, we would have immediately made the changes they demanded.” But our partner has suffered through the same issue for long enough, they simply want out and never have to deal with it again. Having to face the fact that a good relationship came apart because we never knew the extent of our partner’s discontent, we are left with regret and sorrow. Luckily, improvisational theatre can provide a blueprint for how to do things better, and game theory can explain why. Let’s start by analyzing the problem and then see how improv can provide an intuitive solution.

How can we prevent good relationships from falling apart?

Breakups like this are the result of two partners thinking about the same topic in different ways. They share a common goal, but unwittingly disagree about how to get there, which can trick them into thinking they are incompatible and that their relationship is doomed to fail.

  • One partner wants the issue solved right now or at a specific time. This partner thinks about the issue in the same way they think about a heart attack: they want to solve it right now. They oppose delays and fear they lose something important if they accept defeat. If necessary, they are willing to focus all their energy on this issue.
  • One partner thinks that the issue can’t be solved once and for all, it needs to be managed. This partner thinks about the issue in the same way they think about the flu: it is impossible to beat the flu once and for all. We can be fine for now, but in all likeliness, we will have the flu again next winter. There is no sense in investing all our resources in trying to beat the flu once and for all. We would waste our resources trying to perfect a situation that is impossible to perfect. The flu is just something we have to deal with whenever it arises. This partner wants to see the current issue relative to all other issues. They are reluctant to focus all energy on this problem because they feel that it would distract from other areas that deserve consideration.

Both partners are right – in their own way. Life knows many situations that require immediate attention (for example a heart attack), and many that require long-term management because they are impossible to solve once and for all (for example health).  The line between both types of problems is blurry. There is no right answer; often our approach depends on our mood, the situation, and the situation of our friends and families. When our best friend is happily in love, our problems seem much worse than when they are unhappily single.

When both partners handle a problem with different strategies, problems are inevitable. One partner thinks that the other is making a big fuzz about nothing, and the other thinks that the first is indifferent. Game theory can help us understand this problem and find a solution. Game theory would describe this situation as a conflict between a finite and an infinite strategy:

  • When we want the issue solved right now or at a specific time, we play a finite strategy. We have a clear goal, a clear timeline, and we can win or lose the game. These are the characteristics of a finite game. Other finite games are Monopoly, chess, or any sports game.
  • When we think that the issue is impossible to solve once and for all, we play an infinite strategy. There are no clear goal, timeline, and rules. The game will go on forever, and the goal is not to win but to do well enough. These are the typical characteristics of an infinite game. The economy is an infinite game. The goal is not to win the economy – this is impossible – every company wants to do well enough by their own

When two people play the same strategy, everything is fine. Two finite players create a stable system, for example in a card game, and two infinite players create a stable system, for example in the economy. A finite and an infinite player, however, create an unstable system.

One important difference between finite and infinite games is the way we manage our resources. Trailing in a finite game, it makes sense to invest all available resources. Trailing sports teams exhaust themselves, play risky strategies, get more offensive players on the field, etc. – things can’t possibly get any worse, so these strategies make sense. There is no reason to protect resources such as energy.

Infinite games never end, which is why we must manage our resources well. There is no sense in investing them all just because we are trailing at some point. When we exhaust our resources to gain a momentary victory, we lose the ability to maintain the position. Simply put, finite games require strategies that consider the game’s deadline, which can dictate short-term strategies. Infinite games lack a deadline and require long-term strategies.

If health was a finite game, we would do everything to never get sick. We would break off all human contact and never go to work again. This strategy makes no sense – health calls for an infinite strategy. We should do our best to avoid sickness and injury, and when we have it, we should try to get better, but focusing all our resources on this one issue would hurt our overall quality of life.

Similarly, we often make the mistake often setting finite life goals. We want to make a certain amount of money, get married, or buy a specific car. Once we achieve these goals, we feel empty. We wonder if that was all there is to it, set the next goal, and spend all our lives in an unfulfilling rat race. Life is an infinite game, and we need infinite life goals.

Unfortunately, relationships are a bit more complicated. Asking whether relationships are finite or infinite games and which partner is right to play their strategy misses the point.

In the long run, relationships are infinite games. We want to keep the game going and the other person in the relationship, but there is no way to once and for all. Problems will emerge and go away, but it is impossible to enter a state of never-ending bliss. Our daily actions, however, are always finite. Regardless of whether we open a door, write a message, or do something with our partners, there is always a clear goal and a way to succeed or fail.

The everyday life in a relationship is full of finite and infinite games. We might want to indefinitely stay with our partners, but we also feel the need to have some space right now. Our partner, on the other hand, wants to show us their affection right now. They share our infinite goal of staying together, and we share theirs of showing affection, but we both chose different finite strategies right now.

Relationships are difficult because we simultaneously play dozens of infinite strategies but can choose only of them to convert into a finite strategy at any given moment. The overriding goal of staying together splits into many sub-goals that each requires its own infinite strategy. For example, we might have infinite strategies for these sub-goals:

  • Showing our partner affection,
  • Leaving our partner enough space,
  • Making enough money to support the relationship,
  • Having enough time to work on our self-development,
  • Sharing what is important to us with our partners,
  • Etc.

Conflicts in relationships often arise when partners pick a different infinite strategy to translate into a finite strategy right now. Even if they share the same long-term goals and agree on the way how to get there, conflict is inevitable. When we worry about having enough space while our partner worries about their financial situation, we might want our partner to go to the movies and leave us alone, while they want to stay home, save money, and get some work done. We share the same goals, but because we prioritize them differently, we start conflicts because we want our partner to recognize and support us in our finite daily strategies, not contradict them.

Without a way to constructively combine finite and infinite strategies, we are dissatisfied. When we go to bed dissatisfied too many times, we begin to doubt the relationship. The issue that causes our dissatisfaction begins to become all-important to us. We want our space right now, and we are willing to end the relationship to get it. Our partner, on the other hand, might be unaware of our need. Setting different priorities, they do exactly what pushes us out of the relationship, even though they gladly had done what we needed if they only knew.

Conflicts between finite and infinite strategies always end the same way: the partner with the finite strategy exhausts all their resources and drops out of the relationship, while the partner with the infinite strategy is left wondering what happened. Even though neither partner is in the wrong, and the relationship itself might be perfectly fine, the ambiguity of picking the right strategy causes problems.

To avoid an unnecessary breakup, relationships need a tool that connects the infinite and finite strategies of both partners, just like a clutch connects a car’s engine and tires. A tool that translates abstract, infinite long-term strategies to shared, concrete daily goals. This tool is communication. When both partners tell each other what they need, how they want to get there, and which issues they prioritize for the day, they will inevitably find common ground.

  • The partner with the finite strategy can tell the partner with the infinite strategy how they feel in the clearest manner possible. When we attribute the misunderstanding to deep flaws or fundamental incompatibility, we reject our chance of improving the relationship. We can sit down our partner, tell them that unless this thing changes, we will end the relationship, and see how they respond. Unless they clearly communicate – through their words or their actions – that they have no interest in making this change, it is too early to give up on a relationship.
  • The partner with the infinite strategy can escape their lethargy and allow the other partner to set the course. If they want to work on a specific issue, then so be it. Anything else will only enrage them. They can explain why they did not work on this issue until now and show their willingness to now put all their effort into it.

The important aspect is that one partner recognizes the shared goal and alerts the other partner to match their strategies. Stated clearly, no partner in a serious relationship would refuse such an invitation to cooperate.

Three rules for how to be on the same page in a relationship

These three rules for good communication connect our finite and infinite strategies with our partner’s wishes.

Rule #1: Settle & commit

The act of settling and committing turns the finite game of dating into the infinite game of a relationship. While this is the change most of us seek, we have to understand its consequences, or we might get it wrong.

Dating is a succession of mostly finite games. We want our love interests to notice us, go out with us, and agree to a relationship with us. Each step contains a concrete goal and a possibility to win or lose. As we transition into a relationship, we have to abandon our finite thinking and start to think in infinite terms – we have to settle and commit.

Remembering that our partner and we are tied at the hip helps us to understand that we have to fix our issues. In this mindset, communication is inevitable. Regardless of how off-limits a topic might seem, when we have settled and committed, we understand that we have to bring it up in the clearest way – even if we hurt our partner with it. Their commitment will help them get over the hurt and do everything to solve the problem.

Settling is difficult because we have to accept our partner’s flaws. When we tried all our lives to win a perfect partner, suddenly admitting that there might be no such victory means admitting defeat from the perspective of our younger self. We have to surrender the dreams we tied to this victory, thereby also acknowledging that we were mistaken to pursue them in the first place.

On the other hand, settling and fully committing to someone is a smart decision. When we have been with someone for a while, we are in a similar situation to someone who has been with a company for a long time. We developed knowledge of processes, people, and connections that are immensely valuable to this company, but almost useless to everyone else – what economist call firm-specific human capital. In relationships, we build our lives around our partners, create shared memories, and add to our rapport – we create relationship-specific human capital.

Understanding how someone else thinks and what they need in a relationship takes so much time and effort that, once we share this level of understanding with someone who does their best to work around our many quirks and flaws, this person has an unbeatable advantage over everyone else. When we have found someone like that, it is time to settle. Dreams of perfect relationships are for fairy tales.

Settling is crucially important in all aspects of our lives.

Rule #2: Always give them something

Matching our own strategies to those of our partner requires compromise – but sometimes compromise is impossible. These situations are dangerous because they could force both partners in opposed finite games, creating a zero-sum game – for one partner to win, the other has to lose. Those games are difficult to accept because the partner on the losing end feels controlled. Hoping to receive some sign of our goodwill, they keep bringing up the issue. They are far from trying to change or control us, but their finite strategy subconsciously forces them to find something they can consider a win. We misinterpret their intentions, think that we would have to surrender a part of who we are to stay with them, and end the relationship.

To avoid a zero-sum game, it is important to give our partners something that allows them to keep their peace of mind, something that shows our goodwill. This sign can be small. Our partner probably only hopes for a something like a quick ‘thank you’ to a waiter – a sign of courtesy to convey our appreciation. Most likely, our partner is perfectly willing to accept our inability to compromise, but they still want to feel appreciated for bringing it up.

They probably feel silly for making a big fuzz, they are scared we might get angry, and they wish they would simply be fine with the whole thing, but they feel as if they need to discuss this. So they muscled up all their courage and brought up the issue, well-knowing that we might brush them off. They are not trying to control us; they are showing us their love. When we give someone in this state of mind the impression that they are silly, we deeply hurt them. We might quiet their complaints for a while, but they will soon resurface.

When we are unable to move on an issue, one possibility for compromise is to show our partners our appreciation. We must remember that we are playing a finite strategy in an infinite game because this issue is so important to us, such an essential expression of who we are. Our partner is doing the same thing, so we are on the same page. If they are willing to allow us to win our own game, we owe it to them to help them win theirs – we have to give them something they can consider a win. An explanation and a few kind words are often enough to accomplish this goal. When our partner feels that they are allowed to bring up difficult issues and that they can talk to us about anything it is a huge win for them. If we brush them off, we intensify their need for a win and enter a vicious cycle.

The prime example of how not to deal with our partners is Donald Trump’s style of politics. He embarrasses, insults, and degrades people every day, but he never gives them anything. As a result, he enrages the world. Good politicians often reject proposals, too, but they give the other something to save face. They will go to great lengths to talk about their accomplishments, about their spotless image, and about the importance of good relations between both. While they are steadfast in their ‘no,’ they do everything to explain that the other is neither wrong nor stupid and that they will do their best to consider their claims in the future.

Donald Trump essentially says, “No. What I want is right. What you want is wrong and stupid. And that’s the way it will always be.” This is a difficult proposition to accept. While our partner often knows about the stupidity and pettiness of their demands, they need us to take them seriously anyway – even if we can’t do what they want this time.

Rule #3: Surrender control

So far, we assumed games with perfect information. We knew exactly what was going on and how others react. Things get more difficult in games with imperfect information. For example, assume that your partner asked for a break in the relationship because they are worried about your ability to deal with an aspect of their character. This move takes you by surprise because the aspect in question is something you love about them. You are shocked that you hurt partner, and if they told you how to do things better, you would immediately make the change. You want to talk, but your partner wants to be left alone.

On the surface, this might seem like a simple decision: when our partner needs space, let them have it. Unfortunately, this is not how our minds work. We sit at home, wondering if our partner understands how we feel, if they know that we love this aspect of their character, and if they understand that we willingly made the changes they ask for. So what do we do? We try to show them that we mean it. We work on ourselves, change our lives, and let actions speak louder than words. After we made some progress, we realize that all of this is worthless unless our partner knows about it. Since we haven’t seen them in a while, we need to figure out a way of telling them – and are back to a finite game. Should we tell them or leave them alone?

Now add to these difficulties the fact that when our partner asks for a break, they are probably going through a difficult time, too. They might lack any desire to talk to us, including explaining why they want a break. If they remain silent about their reasons, we know that we probably would be willing to make the changes they demand but lack any idea where to start. We need to find out the problem, and to achieve this goal, we have to talk to our partner – another finite game.

We have:

  • A clear goal. We want to tell them about the changes we made.
  • A clear timeline. As soon as possible. We want to get this off our chests now.
  • Clear players. Us and our partners.

At the same time, our partner wants their peace. So what should we do?

If this person is our life partner, we should leave them alone. We are in an infinite game, and our most important goal is not forcing them to drop out. If their current finite strategy is wanting their peace, we must adapt to it.

To achieve this goal, we need multiple infinite strategies that work independently of our partner. When our partner wants to focus on an infinite strategy that does not include us, we must have an infinite strategy available that does not include them. We need friends, hobbies, and passions on which we can focus when our partner needs some me-time. Otherwise, we always rely on them and force them out of the relationship. When our partner asks for a break, we must leave them the room they require and focus on our infinite strategy of improving ourselves – even though it might be difficult.

Vice versa, we should remember that there is no such thing as clinginess. When our partner is too focused on us, they lack the independent infinite strategies that automatically leave us more room in the relationship. Often, their reasons are understandable. If they just moved to our city, they need time to build the social structure that automatically creates independent infinite strategies. We should help and encourage them, instead of getting angry.

How improvisational theatre can help us have better relationships

So far, most of what we wrote requires us to say ‘yes’ to our partner’s demands. That way of thinking about a relationship is difficult because we are all afraid of being pushed around. Improvisational theatre provides a blueprint for how to say ‘yes’ while simultaneously remaining true to ourselves and not having to do whatever our partner demand. This blueprint is saying, ‘Yes, and…’

Saying ‘Yes, and…’ is the only rule of improvisational theater. Improv actors take the stage without a script but only vague instructions such as a setting and names. Around these basics, they have to build a story that viewers find interesting.

Especially newcomers often try to force their vision of the scene on each other. When the setting is Anna and Mark are in a restaurant, one actor might open by saying, “How are you today, Miss Anna?” The other responds, “Why do you call me Miss Anna, we’ve been together for ten years?” The first actor says, “No, no. I’m the waiter; you’re a guest.” And so on. These stories are tough to watch and no fun to play. The ‘no’ kills the scene.

When both actors always say yes to the other’s proposition, they add something to it and give it back – they build something together. When one actor opens with, “How are you today, Miss Anna?” he positions himself as the waiter. Accepting the idea, the other actor might respond, “Fine, thank you. Has Mister Smith arrived yet?” Now there is intrigue. Who is Mister Smith? Does Anna hate or love him? Is the waiter jealous of Mister Smith or is he his best friend? That’s for the actor to decide. He could say, “I fear he has not. Did you not hear the news?” By now, actors and audience are interested. What news? Did Mister Smith die or get married to someone else? That is how we build stories out of thin air.

Improv actors say no, too. But they never say no to the basic proposition of the other. When one actor asks, “Honey, how about a trip to Thailand?” the other might say “How about China? I’d like to meet Maria again.” Strictly speaking, this is a no. But it is a yes to the basic proposition, and it offers the other actor something to do. Who is Anna? What is she doing in China? How do we know her? Is she an ex or our mother? This story has potential because the actor said ‘Yes, and…’ to the core proposition.

Similar to improv, relationships require us to create something out of thin air. Both partners have a rough idea of what the relationship should look like, but they must avoid forcing their idea on the other. When we are curious where the other leads us, we can build an interesting story – together. Applying the ‘Yes, and..’ rule helps with this task. We must understand our partner’s core proposition, agree and add to it, and give it back.

Improv actors combine a sense for who they are with flexibility. For example, if someone is quiet, cute, and waggish, they could never play an aggressive person. If another actor opens the scene with, “Hello, Mister Devil,” they must play a quiet, cute, and waggish devil. That requires imagination, but also adds intrigue. They think, “Okay, I’m the devil, but I’m my kind of devil. And you’re in purgatory.” Now the other actor responds, “Okay, if you’re this kind of devil and I’m in purgatory, I’ll be my kind of person in purgatory.” We might end up with a waggish devil and a relaxed person in purgatory – an intriguing story.

Saying ‘Yes and…” creates unique and interesting scenes. Both actors fully commit to the scene, they surrender control, and they always give the other something – the ideal blueprint for how to transfer the lessons from game theory into our relationships.

Of course, it is impossible to honor the ’Yes, and…’ rule every time. Just like improv actors sometimes lack an idea how they could say yes and add something to a scene, our partners and we are often a little overwhelmed, too. The advantage of a relationship is that there is more time than on an improv stage.

  • We can pause a discussion for a while and think about what we could add.
  • We can try one solution, see how it feels, and adjust course.
  • We can find our unique solution for how to deal with the challenges of a relationship.

As long as both partners remain committed, always give the other something, and surrender control, the relationship will be fine.

Conclusion

  1. Relationships are difficult because they force us to combine many finite and infinite strategies with conflicting goals.
  2. Settling and committing, always giving the other something, and surrendering control help us to transform our infinite strategies into finite everyday actions.
  3. Taking an improv class with our partner helps us understand the type of communication that creates intriguing relationships out of thin air.

Two good videos on this topic

On relationships:

A good example of improv:

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Published in Psychology

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