Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Romantic Games and Why We Play Them

Tibor R. Machan

I never read this book but The Rules is supposed to be an instruction
manual guiding women on how to deal effectively with men in the course of
a budding romance. The central idea, not original to this little tract,
is to keep the men coming while not showing them that you want them to. The idea is, of course, pretty familiar to most of us: in order to gain someone’s interest, we need to play hard to get. It is supposed to apply to all of us, not just women aiming to get their man.

But why would such circumspect, devious strategies be needed? Why not just do what we do in commerce, namely, seek something out and then learn what it takes to make
it ours? To put it even more accurately, why not be up front, forthright, rather than play tricks?

In addressing this it bears keeping in mind that a good portion of modern
romantic history and literature focuses on how often love goes unrequited.
All those novels, plays, movies, songs—the blues, especially—operas, and so forth make it clear that there is something serious at issue here—a great many cases of romantic
love involve the element of at least initial rejection and in many others tragic rejection assumes Herculean proportions. Somehow great beauty is associated with it. And in many quite mundane relationships the hard-to-get factor stands out, adding what some take to be a poetic
dimension to them all.

On the other hand, I would guess that many of us also have dreams of
smooth, nearly effortless romantic relationships, ones not involving all
that struggle, heartache, and what might be dubbed virtual bipolarity.
Would it not make most of us much happier to find someone who appeals to
us and to whom we in turn appeal, lay it all out frankly and without
trickery and ease into an enjoyable, vibrant romance? I think I am not
inventing anything when I suggest that that, too, is for most of us one of
our great hopes in our lives.

Why is this nearly always very, very difficult to achieve? I suggest that
one reason for the difficulty is captured in the expression, “We do what we
know.” In this context, the problem is that many children are brought up
misunderstanding the nature of their parents' love for them. Parents too often (a) do not really want their kids, (b) have kids while their lives are in turmoil, (c) bring up their kids by means of very tough love, suited more to training attack dogs than human children, (d)
think what kids need most is to be shown how mean and tough life can be
and to prepare them for it all, and (e) feel that being affectionate to
their kids amounts to making them into sissies. And all this is especially
so when it comes to raising boys who will, after all, have to go and fight
in wars, etc. I would assume that this fits the picture of how boys have
been raised in most cultures throughout human history.

Well, is it any wonder, then, that when these boys grow up they seek out
tough love? The women to whom they are attracted, psychologically and
emotionally, tend to be difficult to reach, impossible ideals who put them off at first, play
hard to get, while the women who want them tend to believe they need to act
hesitant, uninterested, even cold.

Not all relationships involve these rather peculiar if not out and out perverse elements but I suspect a great many do. One thing I learned from all this, aside from figuring it out through my own pretty tormented and mismanaged romantic life, is to make absolutely
sure that my own children routinely received affectionate, even coddling, love. And I think some of this has paid off, since none of the three craves romance from those who tend to hurt them a lot. They seem to have a far calmer attitude about romantic relationships than I had, or
indeed than have most of those whom I know well.

Some of this is no doubt a function of the difficult lives that many have lived throughout human history, lives that did in fact require one to be tough and hardened, personality traits that then slipped into areas where they were of no use and often quite harmful. It is time, I think, we—or perhaps mostly our progeny—become free to experience love of any kind, parental or romantic, without all the discomfort and gamesmanship with which it is all too often associated now.

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