During my early years as an online gamer, when EverQuest was in its heyday, I was married to a man who not only played enough EQ with me to keep up with my leveling but was someone I actually enjoyed having in a group. Yes, I'm the one who dragged him into it. Yes, he played a mage. Yes, he was a wuss. But I was lucky - I had a spouse who gamed with me.
Until he didn’t.
When I left EQ, my husband left, too. We dabbled for a while in City of Heroes, but the game wasn’t for him, and he essentially left MMOs behind forever. He’d had his fun, and enjoyed the company of a great guild, and if it hadn’t been for them I’m sure he wouldn’t have even lasted in EQ as long as he did. The writing was on the wall - my husband wasn’t a gamer, not really. That left me the only gamer in the family (at least until our kids got older). And that, as any gamer with a non-gaming spouse knows, can sometimes present a problem.
A Man Called Joe
A new gamer friend of mine, Joe, introduced me to his spouse over Team Speak a few weeks ago as we were preparing to spend a little quality time in EQ. (Funny how games come full circle, isn’t it?)
“Karen, meet Diane,” he said. “Diane, meet Karen!” (I’ve changed names here to protect privacy.) We exchanged hellos, and then Diane went off to do her own thing. I asked my friend whether his wife played MMOs.
“Not at all,” he said. “She’s not a gamer.”
“And she doesn’t mind if you do?”
“We wouldn’t be married if she did,” he said with a chuckle.
Because we were ready to set off on our group adventure I didn’t get time to ask any further questions, but I was puzzled by the implications of his answer. Was he saying that he would have divorced his wife of many years had she not supported his gaming habit? (I’m pretty sure that their marriage predates the dawn of MMOs.) If that’s what Joe was saying, then, well... that was a pretty cold assertion.
But I’d come to know Joe as a family man and all-around nice guy. (At the very least, he plays a nice guy on the Internet, where assholes are usually the first to out themselves.) I couldn’t bring myself to believe that he’d leveled an ultimatum at his beloved. Surely he wasn't saying that he would have dumped her if she hadn't tolerated him spending vast amounts of time grouping online with relative strangers.
Then it came to me. I remembered a concept a psychologist once taught me and it seemed to fit: Joe and Diane must have had good differentiation.
A Thing Called Differentiation
Back in the 50s a man named Murray Bowen proposed a psychological theory called Family Systems Theory, which included a concept called the Differentiation of Self. Boiled down to its simplest definition, differentiation means that you, the individual, have evolved the ability to set yourself apart from others, particularly those in your immediate family. Think of it as your ego’s ability to say, “I’m me; you’re you. We’re different, and we do different things, and I'm okay with that.”
Embracing this idea is harder than it seems. Differentiating means finding ways to separate ourselves emotionally and intellectually from those we are especially close to and generally dependent upon in some way, like a spouse or a parent. That’s not easy, because we’re humans, and we’re riddled with insecurities. We are, like it or not, people who need people to help us give context to our lives. And because of that, differentiation is one of those things we can strive for but will probably never fully realize. Like the Buddhist striving for true enlightenment, we may work hard at it but never quite get there. In fact, we may not even get close.
We are, like it or not, people who need people to help us give context to our lives.
Even so, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. (Hey, it wouldn’t be a cliche if it weren’t true.) By achieving just a little more differentiation from the people in our lives who matter to us most, Bowen postulated that we could achieve significantly more happiness in our day-to-day relations with them.
Why does this matter? Because differentiation (or the lack thereof) plays a role in spouse aggro. If your partner isn’t able to disconnect your bent for frequent gaming from your affections for him or her, then you’re bound for stormy seas. (Hey, I’ve been married to a non-gamer - I know that “I’m displeased that you're still up and there are birds chirping outside” look when I see it.)
By now you may be feeling smug and thinking, I just knew it was all my spouse’s problem and not mine! After all, it’s your significant bother making the stink, right? It’s your significant bother fussing all the time over the hours you spend gaming, no matter how often you explain that you’d much rather do something that actively engages your brain than sit around with her watching sit-coms, or that your reason for staying up late has nothing to do with not wanting to sleep with him and everything to do with not being able to go to bed quite that early. Both those cases (and many others we offer up as rationale) may well be true, and I’m sure they feel especially true to you, but...but...
It’s important to make sure that you’re not gaming as an escape from bigger interpersonal problems. As it turns out, differentiation is a two-way street. You're probably not much more differentiated than your spouse. In fact, Bowen also postulated that the level of differentiation between family members tends to be very similar, and it's difficult to set oneself apart.
Before you decide that your spouse is the problem, ask yourself whether you're in what Bowen referred to as a triangle. Triangulation, in its simplest form, refers to relying on (triangling in) a third party to help soften the conflict between two. Sometimes - more often than we’d like to admit - we find ourselves unwilling or unable to resolve our issues directly with our partner. When that's the case, we often turn to other people - a friend, a coworker who becomes a “work spouse,” even a child who becomes the center of our attention. Other times, we create triangles with our diversions - spending too much time at work, or gaming in excess.
Much Ado about Something
Differentiation and triangulation are deceptively simple-sounding concepts, but in practice they’re just plain hard. Few people ever achieve a degree of differentiation much higher than their natural baseline, but moving up just a few notches yields a significantly greater degree of satisfaction with life overall. In other words, it’s tough, but it’s worth the effort because in the end you’ll be happier with yourself, and happier with the people you share your life with. The good news is that you don't even have to convince your spouse to jump on board - in theory, just one person becoming more differentiated will have a positive effect on the relationship as a whole.
I'm admittedly simplifying the ideas behind differentiation. It's not a difficult concept, but there's more to it than the scope of this article (or my own knowledge) allows for. Reading this article alone certainly isn’t going to get you to a more differentiated state, but if you want to look into the concepts further the Bowen Center would be a good place to start.
We gamers easily conclude that we’re misunderstood, because to some degree we are. We can be maligned in the media and subject to all sorts of inane stereotypes. But every stereotype has those who validate its existence - those who fit society’s assessment of us as a group to a tee on an individual level. Before we point fingers at unreasonable spouses, we might want to take a good look at ourselves.