I loved recess in elementary school. It was all about playing games for me, and the games usually involved a bouncy red rubber ball.
Between my 2nd-grade and 5th-grade years the volleyball-sized red rubber ball was the only piece of equipment needed for several of the games that occupied most of my recesses. With it we’d play games called two-square, one-square, dodge ball, and kickball. In a pinch, the red rubber ball could also be used as a basketball or soccer ball or to play three-flies-up.
Because it could be used for many purposes, just being in possession of the red rubber ball on the playground at the beginning of recess did not give a clear indication of the game to be played. Unlike a football or basketball, which mostly spoke for themselves, your intentions with the red rubber ball had to be announced, in words or actions. You had to “name the game.”
The idea of “naming the game” came to mind recently as I was thinking about a fairly common pattern I see when I work with couples. It’s a pattern that begins with a discussion between them about a particular issue of concern, that quickly grows in complexity, frustration and tension. After a few minutes it becomes unclear to me, and usually to the couple, too, whether they’re still talking about the thing they started talking about.
Those conversations had me thinking about the value of taking a moment to “name the game,” to pause and reflect on the following: If the conversation you’re having with your partner had a title, what would that title be? How would you name the conversational “game” you’re engaged in? What’s its purpose? What are its rules? When is the game over?
NAMING THE CONVERSATION
In a recent session with a couple, we were in one of those conversations that started in one place and was quickly drifting into several new areas. What had begun as a difficult discussion about spending money on a vacation or home improvements was, within 10 minutes, bouncing around among several conversations, and becoming more complicated, confusing, and more laden with emotion. Before getting too overwhelmed we agreed to pause the discussion to see if we could name the various conversations that were occurring. Together we listed on the white board the names of the conversational games we were noticing, including:
- Worry about debt: How are we going to dig out of our growing burden of debt?
- Competing values: What is most important, investing in our home, spending time away as a family, or digging out of debt?
- Comparing financial faults: Whose financial “flaw” is worse, his lack of planning ahead or her always feeling anxious and worried about money?
- Longsuffering: Who has waited the longest for something that really mattered to them? Who is more “due”?
- Troubling family legacies: Whose family-of-origin had worse financial habits?
- Is my work valued? Are our contributions to the family’s finances valued equally?
- Who decides? Do we have an equal say in how this decision will be made?
- Hurt: Who feels hurt, in what ways, by past conversations about money?
Until we paused to name them, most of these conversations were only implicit. That is, the only conversational “game” that had really been named was the Vacation vs. Home Improvements one. All of the conversations above just seeped into the discussion. The effect of their presence, however, was to increase confusion and emotional intensity, and create a growing sense that there was a mess here that was going to be difficult to fix.
My primary point about naming the game is not that the couple should have stayed on topic and not “strayed” into these other “games” – we live complex lives and so our financial decisions are often intertwined with our histories and emotions. My point is that when we feel captured by such complexity and are suffering in its grip, or when we have a sense that one conversation has become too many, it may be helpful to pause and name the conversations. Once we name them, at least three things may become more possible:
- We may gain a better understanding about why the conversation feels so messy. Without necessarily knowing it, we may have been playing several games at once, each with different “rules,” roles and objectives (from a narrative perspective we might think of these as multiple or competing stories).
- We have the opportunity to evaluate the relative importance of each of the conversations we name (What are their effects? How do they help or hinder us? Why do they matter?).
- And we can start to identify our preferences for the conversation(s) we want to have. We can ask, for example, “Which of these conversations seems most important to our relationship?” or “Which one seems like the best place to begin? (are some conversations contingent on others?)” or “What do we want to accomplish and which conversation(s) is(are) most likely to help us get there?”
We might then decide to focus first on the conversation about getting out of debt.
Or we may decide that before we move on to talk about money, hurts need to be repaired or fears addressed.
Or maybe we reach an understanding that this is complex territory (not a simple choice between two options). So we agree that we’ll set aside time to talk, we’ll do some homework to get the facts we need, we’ll move slowly, and we’ll make sure that we show respect to each other even in the midst of confusion and difficult decisions: The name of this game might be “Staying close to each other in the face of life’s complexities.”