Posted by: faithful | September 23, 2007

self-other boundaries: distance, closeness, game behaviors, friendship and intimacy.

How we manage the invisible space that separates us one from the other is perhaps the most important element in maintaining a healthy self, in establishing and maintaining healthy relationships, and in experiencing satisfying levels of self-esteem.

Eric Berne spoke about how we establish relationship connections that will “fill up our time” but never enable us to establish intimacy in our lives.  He spoke of some of these time fillers as rituals, such as attendance at events, club programs, or even holiday get-togethers.  Rituals can become quite meaningful in a community and family as a way of including and bringing together people for the sake of identity formation and shared membership. 

More intense forms of relationship patterns that go beyond distanced acquaintances and ritual behavior include social patterns that may consist of “social game behavior”.  Berne and his professional contemporaries were especially helpful in elucidating a theory of game behavior:  patterns of human relationship that establish certain psychological payoffs, some benign, and some quite harmful. 

They recognized that two of the primary motivators of game behavior are power and the manipulation of levels of self and other esteem.  In the experience of social games, one individual achieves the “one-up” position while ensuring that the other is “less than” or “one-down”.  Another’s esteem is deflated to enhance one’s own.   However, this kind of esteeem, which is based on manipulating reputations and increasing levels of competition, is not rewarding or esteem producing in the long run.   Sooner or later the person who bases their esteem on what “others think of them” and growing more and more one-up and power-filled at the expense of others become morally and psychologically bankrupt.  

Just how does a game work on a psychological or even unconscious level?  One of the hallmarks of game behavior is the shifting and alteration of the role one plays in the game.  The primary roles of all game behavior can be best understood by examining the following game matrix outline: 

RESCUER                                          PERSECUTOR



In observing how the Drama Triangle is configured, you will notice that the Victim is in the pivotal position, the central, or key role around which the other positions revolve.  Just how does this happen? 

It begins in our dependency.  The experience of being in need is a reality of everyone’s early childhood experience of need for nurture and support.  What happens in the parent-child relationship of families that encourage the development of game behaviors is that the parents triangulate with one another and with the child in the two additional roles of rescuer and persecutor.  When a parent responds to a child’s need by providing basic comfort and appropriate limits, there is no triangulation.  For triangulation to occur the same parent who is assisting must treat another person in the child’s environment, frequently the other parent, as a harmful or negligent force:  the persecutor.  However, as we can quickly see, the moment the child gets the message that one parent is helping and another is hurting a switch has already occured.  The “helpful” parent has now assumed a one-up position in relationship to the “persecuting” parent and that persecutor is suddenly the victim of complaining parent’s contempt.  The complaining parent has become the persecutor.  The child, caught in the experience of witness to this psychological event, quickly adapts and may even begin to split and manipulate the parents through experiences of showing unnecessary dependency or in more problematic circumstances, they will identify with the critical parent and begin to treat the other in a “less-than” sort of way.  Their childhood innocence can be injured and as they adapt to become a drama triangle persecutor or willing victim as well.  They may also feel “sorry” for the beleagered parent and respond as a rescuer themselves.  (This is but one typical scenario of how game behavior can be learned in one’s family of orientation and there are other scenarios that occur and begin to teach the drama sequence similarly.)

As this simple illustration points out, there is always a switch of roles (among the three positions) and a subtle and unconcious alteration of role sequencing that emerges in game behavior:  the rescuer becomes the persecutor, the victim becomes the rescuer, and the persecutor becomes the victim.  In addition to the assumption of roles, another change has occured in this child’s life:  there has been an element of dishonesty that is recorded in his beliefs about his parents:  that one is better than the other, that one is not as good as the other.  Moreover, the child’s adaptation to assume a role in the family drama triangle gives the child excessive power, endowed by the careful tutelage of a parent who themselves may have difficulties of self-esteem and be unable to share power respectfully with another parent. 

This switching of roles and the one-up and one-down sequencing is the hallmark of game theory and enables relationship matrixes to remain harbingers of non-intimate and destructive patterns of human relationship. 

Many of the games of life are comparatively benign:  “if it weren’t for you” can be a simple way of keeping a victim in an assigned role of remaining passive and dependent.  His partner may like the experience of being the capable doer in the relationship experience.   Some game theorists perceive these games as running the gamut from innocuous safe games to deadly and harmful ones, an example is aptly labelled “now I’ve got you, you son of a B_____.”  If you are interested in learning more about game theory and the ins and outs, procedures and payoffs of these games, you can consult Berne’s work for a fuller explanation.  

As we can observe from the simple example in early childhood life, family life can be an arena for the development of skillful game behavior but it can also be a safety net and trustworthy world in which children mature and take responsibility for themselves without resorting to one-up and one-down ways of obtaining power and esteem.

Children watch and replicate their parents’ behaviors and parents can unwittingly triangulate and teach triangulation rather than help the child establish relationships based on mutual respect, sharing and negotiation of power and preferences.

Even without resorting to game behavior there are those individuals with whom we keep a distance for a myriad of reasons: lack of time, opportunity, preference and compatibility.   Some of us prefer persons who are introverted, others like extroverts.  Some look for opposites and others seek similarity.  There are many personality variables and developmental phases in our lives and these differences are generally responsible for how we form connections with others. 

What does it take to form a closenesss and maintain the trust of a long-term deep friendship?  Certainly, one of the first requirements is that game behaviors are reduced to a minimum.  All of us are aware of individuals we know who are chummy with one another so long as they share the same enemies and share the same “friends.”  In some sense, we can agree that friendship is there, but it is not the friendship of intimacy. 

In intimacy there is a need and room for personal growth and a support for individuation.  Differences may be threatening at times, but an effort is made to resolve differences and find outcomes that will be mutually respectful and that there is  a clarity of understanding and that agreements are not based on underlying patterns of manipulation and deceit.

With persons we trust and with whom we choose to be intimate, we find that it is safe to share preferences, values, and allegiances.  We can enjoy quiet and social time together.  We are able to remain our comfort zones and step into a zone of discomfort when it is necessary to understand a conflict that emerges.  Intimates who are trustworthy are not intrusive or persistently challenging.  Appreciation is shown for what is given to one another and there is respect for choices that are made, even choices that are unwelcome or unexpected.  More becomes known about dreams and disappointments.   Often histories are a part of personal sharing. 

In all relationships there are idiosyncracies and difficult aspects to intimacy.  It is especially important that intimates respect patterns of difficulty, and be respectful of one another’s “achilles heels.”  Failure or tenderness is not viewed as weakness, but rather as an opportunity for understanding and mutual support.

Intimacy can include friendships and need not include sexual aspects of sharing.  Many friendships last over years between individuals who never share time with one another for the sake of sexual exploration.  On the other hand, couples who want to be intimate and are also experiencing sexual closeness will better be able to keep their sexual intimacy fresh and pleasing if they are cooperative, thoughtful and commit themselves to the respectful treatment and long-term well-being of one another.



  1. I am working with children and it was insightful for me, helped me to concepualize many psychodynamics in many famillies.

    thanks alot

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