In its common clinical form this is a three-handed game played by a married couple with a psychiatrist. The husband (usually) is bucking for a divorce, despite loud protestations to the contrary, while the spouse is more sincere in wanting to continue the marriage. He comes to the therapist under protest and talks just enough to demonstrate to the wife that he is cooperating; usually he plays a mild game of ‘Psychiatry’ or ‘Courtroom’. As time passes he exhibits either increasingly resentful pseudo-compliance or belligerent argumentativeness towards the therapist. At home he initially shows more ‘understanding’ and restraint, and finally behaves worse than ever. After one, five or ten visits, depending on the skill of the therapist, he refuses to come any longer and goes hunting or fishing instead. The wife is then forced into filing for divorce. The husband is now blameless, since his wife has taken the initiative and he has demonstrated his good faith by going to the therapist. He is in a good position to say to any attorney, judge, friend or relative, ‘Look how hard I’ve tried!’
The couple is seen together. If one—let us say the husband—is clearly playing this game, the other is taken into individual treatment and the player is sent on his way, on the valid ground that he is less ready for therapy. He can still get a divorce, but only at the expense of abandoning his position that he is really trying. If necessary, the wife can start the divorce, and her position is much improved since she really has tried. The favourable, hoped-for outcome is that the husband, his game broken up, will go into a state of despair and then seek treatment elsewhere with genuine motivation.
In its everyday form this is easily observed in children as a two-handed game with one parent. It is played from either of two positions: ‘I am helpless’ or ‘I am blameless’. The child tries, but bungles or is unsuccessful. If he is Helpless, the parent has to do it for him. If he is Blameless, the parent has no reasonable grounds for punishing him. This reveals the elements of the game. The parents should find out two things: which of them taught the child this game; and what they are doing to perpetuate it.
An interesting, though sometimes sinister, variant is ‘Look How Hard I Was Trying’, which is usually a harder game of the second or third degree. This can be illustrated by the case of a hardworking man with a gastric ulcer. There are many people with progressive physical disabilities who do the best they can to cope with the situation, and they may enlist the help of their families in a legitimate way. Such conditions, however, can also be exploited for ulterior purposes.
A man announces to his wife and friends that he has an ulcer. He also lets them know that he is continuing to work. This elicits their admiration. Perhaps a person with a painful and unpleasant condition is entitled to a certain amount of ostentation as a poor recompense for his suffering. He should be given due credit for not playing ‘Wooden Leg’ instead, and deserves some reward for continuing to assume his responsibilities. In such a case, the courteous reply to ‘Look How Hard I’m Trying’ is, ‘Yes, we all admire your fortitude and conscientiousness.’
A man is told that he has an ulcer, but keeps it a secret from his wife and friends. He continues working and worrying as hard as ever, and one day he collapses on the job. When his wife is notified, she gets the message instantly: ‘Look How Hard I Was Trying. ‘Now she is supposed to appreciate him as she never has before, and to feel sorry for all the mean things she has said and done in the past. In short, she is now supposed to love him, all previous methods of wooing her having failed. Unfortunately for the husband, her manifestations of affection and solicitude at this point are more apt to be motivated by guilt than by love. Deep down she is likely to be resentful because he is using unfair leverage against her, and has also taken unfair advantage of her by keeping his illness a secret. In short, a diamond bracelet is a much more honest instrument of courtship than a perforated stomach. She has the option of throwing the jewellery back at him, but she cannot decently walk out on the ulcer. A sudden confrontation with a serious illness is more likely to make her feel trapped than won over.
This game can often be discovered immediately after the patient first hears that he has a potentially progressive disability. If he is going to play it, the whole plan will very likely flash through his mind at that point, and can be recovered by a careful psychiatric review of the situation. What is recovered is the secret gloating of his Child at learning that he has such a weapon, masked by his Adult concern at the practical problems raised by his illness.
Even more sinister and spiteful is the sudden unheralded suicide because of serious illness. The ulcer progresses to cancer, and one day the wife, who has never been informed that anything serious is amiss, walks into the bathroom and finds her husband lying there dead. The note says clearly enough, ‘Look How Hard I Was Trying.’ If something like this happens twice to the same woman, it is time for her to find out what she has been playing.
Adult: ‘It’s time to (get dressed) (go to a psychiatrist).’
Adult: ‘All right, I’ll try it.’
Parent: ‘I’m going to make you (get dressed) (go to a psychiatrist).’
Child: ‘See, it doesn’t work.’