How to Love Each Other Like a Therapist

Marital advice for a lovely couple.

Posted Oct 14, 2019

Ben and Anna are in love. That’s nice. But what really warms my heart is that they make each other laugh. This is a good foundation.

Dear friends, I was one of Ben and Anna’s teachers in their clinical psychology program, and I chaired their doctoral papers. Ben’s paper applied game theory to clinical training and Anna’s was about leading a business like a therapist, so I thought it would be interesting to apply game theory to marriage and talk about loving like a therapist. Game theory, for our purposes, is concerned with strategies for winning conflicts that arise in married life.

You may find yourself in a game called "Dishwasher Chicken." You can play it loaded or unloaded, but either way, the idea is to outlast your opponent until she — or, possibly, he — breaks down and does the dishes. You can train for Dishwasher Chicken through a simple exposure regimen. By acclimating yourself to food waste and unsightly counters, you can build up your tolerance. Of course, your opponent also will employ this strategy, so it does not guarantee victory. You can try stacking the dishes incorrectly, but your spouse might see through this rather than do it for you. Your best move is to invite someone to your home that your spouse admires; your spouse will be grateful but then will panic about the state of the kitchen. Maybe don’t give your spouse an advantage by openly admiring anyone.

Two people who love each other as much as you two do are bound to find many reinforcements available from the other person, and this in turn naturally leads to a desire to control the other person. If you are the source of your spouse’s happiness, then, your spouse will be more attached to you, but will also want to control you. The obvious solution is to reward your spouse at random, so they will see that there’s no way to control it. If your spouse asks you to make their favorite soup, flip a coin. If they ask for help with a personal problem, roll the dice on whether to listen. If they ask to make whoopee, spin yourself like a top and see where you land.

Love each other desperately, completely, and permanently, but for goodness sake, keep it to yourself. Why give the other person that kind of ammunition?

If you are blessed with children, then what was once a war game becomes an all-out war. I believe it was Sun Tzu who said that all marriage—maybe he said war, but I think it was marriage—is based on deception, but obviously, he was referring to marriages with children. Once you have a baby, anything you take for yourself—even a hot bath—you must take from your spouse, who is saddled with the child. You may not feel saddled with the child; you may look forward to playing with your kids, but if you let it slip that you enjoy it, your opponent will take advantage. The best strategy, of course, is to get someone else to raise them, so consider moving closer to your nuclear family, and see if you can get the grandparents to compete among themselves for the grandparent of the year.

So much for game theory. Now, what does it mean to love each other like a therapist? Well, for one thing, it means you really need to get paid for it. That’s not as snarky as it sounds. Well, it is, but I actually mean something wholesome. We pay our spouses for their love with a thousand acts of kindness, affection, and responsibility, but the spouse doesn’t always notice that they’ve been paid. So notice. Underline what your spouse does for you and use it to balance the ledger against the more noticeable things your spouse fails to do, and the even more noticeable things that you do for your spouse.

Therapists love by keeping secrets. Get the process started by telling a few of your own, stuff that sounds embarrassing but that you’ve actually already posted on Facebook. You want your spouse to respond with stuff that’s so humiliating that they can’t even dream of betraying the marriage without fear that you’ll blab. Mutually assured destruction is bad foreign policy but a cornerstone of successful marriages.

Therapists love by ending sessions on time. It’s hard to stay empathic and considerate, and it’s a lot easier if you know when you get to stop. If you become parents, you will find that loving your children is a lot easier if you have established a regular bedtime so as to know when they will just go away. Heck, it’s even true of ourselves: Even self-love can be a strain, so we take a break from ourselves with binge-watching and crossword puzzles. A couple needs to cultivate a way to signal that the interaction is over for now without making the other person feel rejected. Being trained as therapists, maybe you’ll just say to each other, “It’s time to stop,” when it’s time to stop. More likely, you’ll develop a code of your own, like “I have to check my email” or “I have to walk the dog.” That works better if you have a dog.

Therapists love by staying in character. The patient thinks you are judgmental or domineering or whatever and you keep your therapy hat on no matter what. Well, keep your spouse hat on no matter what. You can put the marriage in the back seat when you’re doing something else, but don’t go anywhere the marriage doesn’t want to go. If you do play a competitive game with each other, like Scrabble or “Who’s funniest?” stay in character by playing hard and playing to win, but wear the marital hat by keeping the competition limited to the game. Marriage itself is such a game. Call a timeout once in a while and compliment your spouse’s best moves.

So that’s game theory and acting like a therapist applied to marriage. I want to end on a serious note, and by serious, I mean playful. Because play means framing interactions with clear boundaries so they can engross you and be taken seriously but not too seriously. Play means structuring your days around what you want to do and not just what you have to do. And play also means the give you find in train couplings so they’re not so loose as to separate and not so tight that they can’t take the twists and turns that lie ahead on the track.