Game Theory for Metamours

So, I recently had a betrayal by a meta-partner. I felt it as a betrayal. It was a health risk and no disclosure VERY shortly after having a health scare and assuring one another that we would be scrupulous about informing each other. And I did not trust the meta-partner any more.

I felt guilty about the unfairness of treating her as more suspicious than a stranger. I kiss Xira, who is a stranger, but I trusted him to be a grownup and responsible and he was. I trust acquaintance strangers to be responsible grownups in their physical relationships to me. And they’ve rarely/never let me down about this. I have often had good cause to speak well of their considerate and scrupulous behavior. Even if they wanted things that broke my heart, I respected how they dealt with me. I LIKE being a trusting person and wish to continue giving people the benefit of the doubt.

But when that trust is broken…. yeah, I trust betrayers less than mostly strangers. When I think of how this must feel on the receiving end, I have great sympathy for the meta-partner.  It must be horrible to be treated like a betrayer. To be held as less trustworthy than a mostly stranger. I agonized over my unwillingness to trust her word or expose myself to risk around her. How could I make her feel so bad? How could I treat her so poorly?

Then I remembered:

OMG, BUT THIS IS PRISONER DILEMMA GAME THEORY. If you haven’t read about this, there’s a nice explanation here. Basically, the winning “strategy” is to treat strangers with a default of trust. This allows you to benefit from collaborations with any willing collaborators. But once a program shows they will defect, you must IMMEDIATELY retaliate. And this was the key transaction: you keep defecting until they offer to collaborate again. What I didn’t notice about this process was, at least once, the other program (person) has to offer to collaborate AND HAVE YOU DEFECT ON THEM. How awful and scary for the other program (person). Knowing going in that they’re going to put their hand out and have it slapped back. Knowing it’s coming. Knowing they will not be trusted. And also knowing it’s the only way to show you will collaborate again. They have to take that hit and keep offering to collaborate if they want the trust back that the program (person) usually gives to unknown strangers.

So it’s not mean. It’s smart. I don’t want to be a doormat who gets betrayed over and over again. I don’t want to be stupid when I extend my trust.

This is actually exactly what I should be doing. You always offer to collaborate, but when betrayed, you MUST retaliate to prevent undue loss. ONLY when the person offers to collaborate, even at the expense of getting burned by you, do you IMMEDIATELY begin collaborating again. But you DO NOT extend your trust again without that. There’s no grudges. But there must be cause.

I realized I needed something from the meta-partner to start to trust her again. I needed her to show me she was willing to collaborate with me. And as much as my feelings revolted at the thought, if was smart, I’d suck it up and start collaborating immediately. But until then, NOT treating her like a potential traitor was just not smart. I didn’t need to be her enemy, but I wasn’t risking anything on her.


When our emotions, when our social pressures, when our training is all chattering at us to be a doormat, it is helpful to remember that it’s better to be smart. You don’t have to be mean. But be smart.


One thought on “Game Theory for Metamours

  1. Ooo, game theory + poly. I like that. And sorry to hear about this betrayal. “That sucks” would be a vast understatement. I like what you wrote about how necessary it is to be smart about it, to stand up for your own feelings and needs. Best of luck.

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