It is a common assumption made by most dating resources and, indeed, most people, that relationships are a zero-sum game: that someone has to be better for having the other, and that for that to happen, the other must therefore be worse, having made a sacrifice to improve their partner. But I have already discussed why this is not necessarily the case.
What I’m getting to today, thanks to an interesting post by IB last week, is the mentality that brings about this assumption. Because there actually seems to be a step in between “I observe that most relationships are unbalanced” and “therefore there has to be a loser”. And that step is “everyone wants to marry up”.
In and of itself, the statement is innoccuous: of course everyone wants to marry up. We want the genetically fittest partner we can get, as well as a compatible one, so we look out for one who is generally an improvement on us. Sexier, richer, younger, more mature, more famous, brighter, etc. Thus, we look for something better. But the implication is that for someone to be better than us, they must be “hyper”, or “above” us. Thus, we win and they lose.
But the reality is that we also seek compatibility in our genetic fitness. The masculine seek the feminine, the feminine seek the masculine. The creative seek the scientific, the scientific seek the creative. The doctors seek the nurses or the patients. The artists seeks the muse, the model an artist. We want someone who can do what we cannot, what we either do not have the time or the energy or the skills to do. If it had a term, it would be “paideiagamy”: the pursuit of someone who rounds us out, who makes us a complete unit of society.
And this is where we find that middle ground of “marrying up”.
You see, there are two ways of marrying up.
The first is when partner A is clearly beneath partner B. Not just in one aspect, but as a sum total of their desirable qualities. In these cases, only two results are possible. Either partner B becomes idle, and lets slide the characteristics that made them better, causing an evenly married couple where partner A resents partner B for “bait and switch” and partner B resents partner A for “ruining B’s life”. Or partner B continues to work on improvement, or at least maintenance and grows distant, causing partner A to become insecure about the quality gap, causing anger on both sides. In short, you cannot just “marry up” and rest on your laurels.
But there is another kind of marrying up. This is where the partners are either equal or equivalent. Equal in that they are approximately the same in all desirable qualities. Or equivalent in that, despite specific differences, their sum total of desirability is even. However both partners are focused on improving themselves and extend that efford to each other. In working to improve each other, they end up with a continually better partner: one who gives them better access to that which they desire. But they are also improving, incentivizing their partner to also invest in them. Through this process, each member of a couple will appear to have benefitted greatly from the relationship. Their friends and family will compliment the quality of their partner for “fixing” them. But in reality both have improved.
Of course, the second kind of marrying up is all an illusion. Neither married someone objectively better than themselves. You’ve just married your approximate equal and both encouraged each other to improve, giving the impression to everyone but yourselves that one of you struck gold. But “true” marrying up is as much a recipe for failure as marrying down, or being lazy in a relationship are.
So the answer is: Not really. You can’t both marry someone better than you, not in absolute terms. But being unable to both “marry up” does not lead to “zero-sum game”. You can just as easily marry an equivalent, a slight superior or a slight inferior and end up both vastly better off for it. Which may make others assume you married up after all!
Ultimately, you can only win at the game when you play it together.
TTFN and Happy Hunting!
What is your perspective on improvement through relationships? And what would your paideiagamy look like: focus on complementarity, on similarity, on contrasts, on better qualities..? Do you think there are any more steps to the disillusion->marry-up->zero-sum-game mentality?