The Right Distance

There is an optimal distance for any relationship at any point in time. It is a rope that connects two people, which runs longer the more space they need and shorter the closer they want to be.

The rope allows the in-between space to change, but it also helps to decide if it is worth getting closer or further apart. If you keep a sense of the rope, you notice when it has too much tension, and it is best to let it run longer or when there is slack, and it is worth getting closer.

Of course, the other side is held by someone else, so holding the rope on both ends is a bit like a game of tug of war, but the goal is not to pull anyone to your side but rather to keep the rope at the proper tension so you are as close as possible, but not closer. Let’s call that a tug of peace.

In tug-of-war, you want to pull as hard as possible to make people move towards you. In tug of peace, where we want to keep the tension, there are better strategies than pulling hard.

Game theory, the field of mathematics that studies games, suggests optimal strategies for games similar to the tug of peace.

But first, a bit of context: The classical game theory thought exercise is called the prisoner dilemma, where collaborating or coordinating efforts are hard, and the payout is such that it is best if people can coordinate but terrible if only one collaborates, but the other does not. Without the ability to work together, the “equilibrium” is that no one collaborates.

That game gets a nice twist once you can play it more than once. This is called the :

iterated prisoner’s dilemma. In it, even if it is hard to talk or collaborate, you can see the actions others take and react in any way, whether random or predictable.

One successful strategy in such games is called tit-for-tat. The tit-for-tat strategy suggests that in an iterated prisoner dilemma game, an optimal strategy is to start cooperating but then replicate the other person’s action.

Tit-forTat works well with our tug of peace game: we treat people the best way we can, and then if they don’t reciprocate, we let the rope loose a bit to make some space. Now, because the rope is tense, we can feel when they want to pull closer, and if they do, we can reciprocate.

The challenge with letting the rope loose and creating space between two people is that the more apart they are, the more different their worlds are. As time passes, they will be influenced by different environments and likely drift apart. Over time, you might want to pull back closer only to find the person on the other side of the rope is not who you remember, and you are not the same either.

Ideally, we want to be as close as possible with the people we care about, but the real goal is to keep the rope tense to know what is happening on the other side. Still, if we let the rope go too long, we might not recognize who is on the other side when we pull back.

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