Trigger warning: this post contains very frank and explicit discussion of abusive dynamics and brief mention of sexual assault.
There exists, I recently learned, an absolutely horrible card game called “Mao.”
Mao forbids players from explaining the rules, and new players have to figure it out by trial and error… with punishment (in the form of extra cards, when the goal is to get rid of your entire hand) when they inevitably break them. To add to the complication, the rules can be changed and new rules can be added with every additional round.
When my friend explained the premise of Mao to me, I quipped “you don’t know the rules but you get punished if you break them? Sounds like my last relationship!” Everyone laughed, which was my intention (it was a joke!). But the more I think about this, the more I realise how frighteningly true it actually is.
Abusers often don’t want you to understand the rules
My first abuser was an asshat, but a predictable one. Being with him was far from fun, but it was a system I learned how to live within. As long as I did whatever he wanted sexually without complaint, I was safe. When he cheated on me and left me in the end, the thing I was angriest with myself for was not having seen it coming – when I really should have.
My second and more recent abuser, though, was a different beast entirely. His game was almost entirely psychological, and he was damn good at it. What he did, systematically and over a period of years, was break my brain. He rearranged my sense of self and my worldview until I couldn’t trust whether or not what I was seeing was actually happening.
I never want to feel about anyone else the way I felt about him in the beginning. I was barely out of my teens and he made me lose my mind. Because I was so charmed – dazzled, even – I couldn’t think straight and I made stupid decisions as a result. Which was, I realise now, all part of how he reeled me in. Later on, as we were together longer and longer, I lost my mind in a different way.
Because what was so maddening about being in that relationship was the way that I never understood the rules. I wasn’t told them, simply punished for breaking them. Because this particular breed of narcissistic emotional abuser is a master manipulator – and it serves their purposes to have their victim always feel slightly off-balance. It is impossible to feel safe, secure or sane in a system where you don’t know what the basic parameters are and no-one will tell you.
You can’t learn to follow the rules if they always change
Going back to Mao again for a second; what I found the most frustrating about this horrible game (that I played for maybe fifteen minutes before I went “NOPE”) was the way that I would just begin to get a handle on the rules… and then they’d change again.
My abusive relationship was like that, too. Something that made him happy a week ago would suddenly get me screamed at. If I avoided an action I’d otherwise have wanted to take, because doing it had previously been met with punishment, he’d act confused and hurt: “why would you think I wouldn’t let you do that?” Something that had been fine for literally years was suddenly and arbitrarily completely off-limits. And, of course, I wouldn’t be told until it was too late.
He’d set me a task and then, when I succeeded, move the goalposts. My success wouldn’t count or I would suddenly conveniently have “misunderstood” the task.
The. Rules. Always. Fucking. Changed.
This is because abusers don’t want you to succeed.
My abuser is far, far from unique in any of this. Abusers’ entire MO, especially when they’re the kind of person who gets off on gaslighting and manipulation, is to set up unwinnable games. That way, when you inevitably fail again and again and again – because there was never any way to succeed – they feel justified in criticising you, putting you down, screaming at you, heaping judgement on you. The entire point of these games is to put their victim in the position of the “bad guy,” the one who just cannot seem to manage to be good enough no matter how hard they try.
And I can tell you exactly where this leads. This leads to genuinely believing you’re a curse who ruined his life (but shouldn’t leave because then he wouldn’t have a convenient warm body to fuck, the only thing you’re good for.) It leads to cowering in a corner in his living room and sobbing, vainly hoping the neighbours will hear him – this man who is much older, much bigger, and much more powerful than you – screaming at you at the top of his voice and come to check if you’re okay. It leads to still jumping at shadows five years later, because your amygdala still sometimes literally expects that your world is about to come crashing down for breaking an arbitrary rule you didn’t even know existed.
Love shouldn’t be like this
Love shouldn’t be a game of Mao.
A relationship should not be a series of ever-changing rules, unwinnable games and rigged emotional booby-traps designed to throw you off balance and make you crazy.
Your partner should not be a capricious game-master who gets off on waiting for you to break a rule you didn’t know about and punishing you for it.
I deserved better. It took me years to understand that, to get up the strength to throw the cards on the ground and say “I’m not playing this stupid game any more”. But I always deserved better, and so do you.
If you’re in a situation where your lover is the game-master in an unwinnable game, please reach out to someone you trust – a friend, family member, therapist or other professional. Please explore resources in your area and start making a safety plan to leave. You deserve better.
Fuck, reach out to me if you want and I’ll listen to you and help you find the resources you need.
Because love shouldn’t be a game of Mao.