Games People Play
Corner illustrates more clearly than most games their manipulative aspect and their function as barriers to intimacy. Paradoxically, it consists of a disingenuous refusal to play the game of another.
1. Mrs White suggests to her husband that they go to a movie. Mr White agrees.
2a. Mrs White makes an ‘unconscious’ slip. She mentions quite naturally in the course of conversation that the house needs painting. This is an expensive project, and White has recently told her that their finances are strained; he requested her not to embarrass or annoy him by suggesting unusual expenditures, at least until the beginning of the new month. This is therefore an ill-chosen moment to bring up the condition of the house, and White responds rudely.
2b. Alternatively: White steers the conversation around to the house, making it difficult for Mrs White to resist the temptation to say that it needs painting. As in the previous case, White responds rudely.
3. Mrs White takes offence and says that if he is in one of his bad moods, she will not go to the movie with him, and he had best go by himself. He says if that is the way she feels about it, he will go alone.
4. White goes to the movie (or out with the boys); leaving Mrs White at home to nurse her injured feelings.
There are two possible gimmicks in this game:
A. Mrs White knows very well from past experience that she is not supposed to take his annoyance seriously. What he really wants is for her to show some appreciation of how hard he works to earn their living; then they could go off happily together. But she refuses to play, and he feels badly let down. He leaves filled with disappointment and resentment, while she stays at home looking abused, but with a secret feeling of triumph.
B. White knows very well from past experience that he is not supposed to take her pique seriously. What she really wants is to be honeyed out of it; then they would go off happily together. But he refuses to play, knowing that his refusal is dishonest: he knows she wants to be coaxed, but pretends he doesn’t. He leaves the house, feeling cheerful and relieved, but looking wronged. She is left feeling disappointed and resentful.
In each of these cases the winner’s position is, from a naive standpoint, irreproachable; all he or she has done is take the other literally. This is clearer in (B), where White takes Mrs White’s refusal to go at face value. They both know that this is cheating, but since she said it, she is cornered.
The most obvious gain here is the external psychological. Both of them find movies sexually stimulating, and it is more or less anticipated that after they return from the theatre, they will make love. Hence whichever are of them wants to avoid intimacy sets up the game in move (2a) or (2b). This is a particularly exasperating variety of ‘Uproar’ (see Chapter 9). The ‘wronged’ party can, of course, make a good case for not wanting to make love in a state of justifiable indignation, and the cornered spouse has no recourse.
The antithesis is simple for Mrs White. All she has to do is change her mind, take her husband by the hand, smile and go along with him.
Eric Berne, Games People Play, 1964.