The Children’s Math Game “Guess My Rule” Can Help Contextualize Certain Unhealthy Adult Relationships
Years ago, I was a school counselor at an elementary school where a favorite teacher used to put on a raucous show of math games after lunch. He was silly and over the top, and I would sometimes stop by to stand in the back and watch. One of the games was Guess My Rule. He’d draw a number on the wipe board, cover it with a sheet of paper, and ask the kids to pick a number that would then be dropped into a machine (which he’d animate with his whole body, wiggling and cranking). He would then write the outcome.
For instance, let’s say a student guesses 6 and the machine spits out a 9. Another student guesses a 14 and the machine spits out a 17. The kids would then guess that the rule was +3. As the year went on, he could throw in subtraction and multiplication, as well as some even trickier stuff.
I’ve long thought about a similar yet more complicated version of this. Let’s play a round. Ok, I’ve got my rule. Let’s try it out:
You guess 13–>My number is 11.
You guess 37–>My number is 11.
You guess 1492.3–>My number is 11.
You guess 3.14159–>My number is 11.
Get it? What’s my rule? While the teacher never tried this one (and I think it would have been cruel for 7-year-olds), it’s a game adults get caught in a good deal. We think that what we input into the machine will change the outcome and that if we can come to understand how the machine works, we’ll learn to adjust our inputs to achieve a given outcome.
Except sometimes the other person is just an 11 machine.
Obsessively Trying To Crack The Uncrackable Code With An 11 Machine Is An Ill-fated Project
Some of us can get stuck in a relationship where our participation looks like a kind of Sisyphean circuit. We pretend the “other” in that relationship can be pleased or appeased if we just crack the code. In fact, these ill-fated projects can become obsessions: we can get more caught up in trying to crack the uncrackable code exactly because it’s uncrackable.
The truth is, sometimes the deck is stacked against you. Sometimes you’re unmatched, the game is rigged, or it’s a game you shouldn’t have signed up to play to begin with. There are people who are grouchy largely or fully independent of what we do. There are also people who are forever unsatisfied with those around them, angry, or unintimate. “Winning” their love or attention or “appeasing” their anger isn’t possible because it’s a function not of what you bring, but of who they are in the world and how they operate. They’re an 11 machine, spitting out 11’s regardless of the input.
What Do You Do When You Realize You’ve Been Trying To Win With An 11 Machine?
The first step is to make note of it. Stop and say to yourself, “Wait a minute–I’m obsessively trying to get this person to function differently. Why?” This is often the most important intervention. It’s also the most difficult–to notice your behavior and feel the frustration in the constant attempts to win or appease the unwinnable, but also, in a sense, feel the absurdity of it. Once you see what you’re doing, it’s hard to unsee it, and generally, it untangles on its own.