sunday life: in which i learn how to fix a relationship breakdown

This week I play relationship games

I’ve just found a word to describe one of the most spleen-tearing, devastatingly destructive relationship scenarios a soul can ever face.  If you’re old enough to read this, you’ve no doubt been there. You’ve stood opposite someone you love, mired in a fight (about wet towels on the floor?) that’s lasted all night.


It’s Sunday afternoon and you haven’t slept or left the house and you’ve forgotten what you’re fighting about. Both of you so desperately want the other to give in, but neither can move, paralysed by a need to see a sign of love from the other. If you compromise first you feel you lose. If you don’t, you sink deeper into the stalemate.

You’re in anguish, screaming through tears. You’re due at the neighbours for dinner. But there you are, staring at each other across the boggy, battle-scared Flanders Fields of your disconnect. And you couldn’t be further from peace.

Oh, I’ve been there. And I hope I’m never drafted to another war like it again.

Anyway, the word, from the Yaghan language is mamihlapinatapai, which translates as, “looking at each other hoping the other will offer to do something that both parties desire to have done but are unwilling to do themselves”. Ha! Perfect! The Guinness Book of Records lists it as the most succinct word in any language, and it’s regarded as one of the hardest to translate. Go figure.

I learned this week that this particular relationship scenario is of some interest to game theorists, mathematicians dedicated to solving sticky human quandaries with tactics used in everyday games like cards and chess. Game theory seems to have had a spike in popularity lately, possibly due to it being 60 years since John Nash, as immortalized in the film A Beautiful Mind, devised his Noble Prize-winning theory the Nash Equilibrium (a point in a relationship from which neither party can escape independently without landing in a worse situation). And so it was that I shared a peppermint tea with Australian-born game theory writer Len Fisher, author of Rock, Paper, Scissors, who explained to me strategies for negotiating through the grimmest of relationship stalemates. So I’m never drafted again.

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