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Love, Game Theory, and the Science of Maximizing Relationship Satisfaction

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In the run-up to the wedding, Nick had confessed he’d described her to his family and friends this way: “I know she’s an economist, but she’s the least materialistic person I know!”

“Not the first time someone’s called me a lousy economist,” she’d responded, grinning. It was true, even though she was actually a really good economist. What she’d really been called out over was her unwillingness to use her vast powers of economic theory for evil.

“What’s the use of being an expert in game theory if you don’t use it in dating?” Simon used to tease her. Her fellow adjunct professor was a notorious Casanova, but he justified his dating ways by saying that he was just putting into practice the classic secretary-problem strategy — wherein the optimal stratagem for selecting a mate from a large potential candidate pool (like hiring a secretary) was to assess the number of eligible partners in the field of reference, divide that number by the base of the natural logarithm, and then, after going on dates with that representative sample-size of people, to select the best candidate (for both mate and secretary) who came along after. By all accounts he got through more than twenty dates a month, which, if you assumed he started dating at this level of frequency when he was twenty-one, meant that his estimate of the number of eligible partners in the city of New York was totally out of touch with reality.

“Game theory won’t help you find love,” Rachel used to respond, although of course it wasn’t entirely true. Game theory could actually help anyone do anything related to human behavior — from poker to global politics. Thing was, she hated feeling like a player, like she had an unfair advantage over her more clueless dates, so she’d always turned it off. As it happened, she ended up not dating a lot.

Nick, a history prof with no knowledge of the prisoner’s dilemma and the kindest, most generous spirit in all of Manhattan, would have been easy meat for someone like Simon. Rachel felt pretty good that she’d chosen not to play any games with him, and taken the higher path instead.

Of course, this meant that when Nick did his self-deprecating reveal about the Young family’s astronomical affluence, one of the first, hilarious, things to bubble into Rachel’s frontal cortex was: Damn it, maybe I should have maximized the Lagrangian on him after all!

At the time, her better angels managed to wrestle these uncharitable thoughts into submission. But after Eleanor ran a background check on her and told her she wasn’t enough, Rachel did pull out the game theory strategy after all, and invited Eleanor to a game of mahjonng. She wasn’t doing it to be a player, or to push home an unfair advantage — in fact, she loved Nick so much that, going in, she’d already decided to fold her hand. She’d been prepared to let Eleanor win if it meant Nick got to have the life he deserved; she was willing to give up her own happiness and interests for Nick’s.

It was a defeatist strategy to try to co-operate with someone who’d declared a take-no-prisoners war. Classic prisoner’s dilemma strategy dictated that you met defection with defection. But Rachel decided to co-operate anyway, and to walk away — even though she was certain Eleanor would respond with optimal defection.

Eleanor had surprised her. She’d not only recognized Rachel’s sacrifice for what it was — not some empty threat or gamesmanship, but a genuine concession of the field — she’d also seen Rachel’s value. Choosing to co-operate, she’d sent Nick after her, and this time Rachel had said yes.

The wedding was everything Rachel could have wanted. That is, if it was completely up to her, Rachel would’ve preferred a small wedding in Greenwich, or the really charming New York City Fire Museum in Soho. But the Youngs didn’t do small or charming, and so Nick and Rachel ended up exchanging their vows on a purpose-built floating podium in the Marina Barrage, where Singapore celebrated their National Day every August, against the backdrop of insane Fourth-of-July fireworks pinwheeling across the downtown skyline and the full Singapore Symphony Orchestra playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Nick had booked the nearby ArtScience museum for the reception. Sleek and modern, shaped like a lotus flower, it nestled into the dorsal side of the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort. Their two thousand guests lifted flutes of vintage Cristal amidst Dalis and Warhols and an exhibition of treasure from a Tang Dynasty shipwreck.

Nick had wanted to invite Beyoncé to sing for them, which Rachel had vetoed (Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” was a bit too on-the-nose to be their wedding song), but they’d compromised on John Legend, who had been a total sweetheart, and had even gamely provided backing vocals when Nick decided to sing “All of Me” to his new bride. Nick’s own vocals weren’t very good — Nick wasn’t much of a singer — but Rachel cried anyway.

Fortunately, her man was a much better dancer than he was a singer, and they dazzled the massive crowd with some fancy footwork. The guests cheered; but then, her insanely expensive blue-soled wedding Louboutins would make anyone’s footwork look fancy.

After three more songs, John took a break, and Colin and Araminta swept onto the dance floor in a whirl of Hugo Boss and vintage lace. Colin grabbed Nick around the ribs, and Araminta picked Rachel up and twirled her around under the fifteen spinning disco balls rigged three stories up over the faux reflection lake that had been tricked out for dancing.

Colin had hollered, “Okay, you guys, you’ve got the rest of your lives with each other. You need to dance with other people for five minutes!”

Araminta’s skin was petal-soft and her waist was tiny enough to be circled with Rachel’s two hands, but she was extremely strong. Rachel couldn’t stop giggling. “Don’t drop my wife!” Nick called over, and Araminta said, “Don’t worry. I won’t let you fall.”

Her breath tickled Rachel’s ear; this close, Rachel could almost smell her shimmery raspberry lipstick, and count the lashes that framed her shining eyes. In her deceptively slender arms, Rachel felt suddenly tiny and protected and safe, the same way she felt in Nick’s much brawnier embrace.

“I’ll dance with you,” Colin was saying to Nick; they were swaying hip to hip as if they’d done this before. He was smiling; maybe it was a trick of the mirrored disco lights, but for a moment he looked wistful, as if there was anything to be sad about on this joyous night. The lighting must have been super weird, because it looked like Nick wasn’t really smiling back, either.

“Nice moves, man, same as always. Why don’t you try them out on Rachel?”

“Gladly,” Colin said generously, and swooped down on Araminta and Rachel. “Ladies! Can I cut in?”

Laughing, Araminta pretended to resist: “I’m not very good at sharing!” Her arms tightened around Rachel as she leaned in to kiss Colin on the mouth, and there was a fleeting moment when Rachel found herself pressed between their toned, lithe bodies, unexpectedly close to their lush, teasing lip-lock.

She had to swallow. As one of her professors used to say, becoming a vegetarian didn’t mean you couldn’t still smell the bacon when it was cooking.

“So I lied. With you, I’m really good at sharing,” Araminta drawled, and Colin said, “I know, darling. Me too.”

When Araminta released her, Colin proceeded to whisk her off her feet in a very energetic tango that filled her senses with the previously-mentioned, knee-weakening sizzle. She was hotly aware that Nick and Araminta were watching them, and that Araminta was grinning openly in a way that suggested she couldn’t wait for Colin to share this too.

What was wrong with the lighting? Nick still looked grim. Rachel wondered if they should have spent so much money on the clearly lousy disco lights — and then Colin dipped her and she temporarily lost the ability to think.

“If you weren’t married to my best friend, and me to mine, I’d marry you myself,” Colin murmured in her ear as he set her back on her feet. Araminta grinned and stage-whispered, “He says that to all the boys. And the girls, too, apparently!”

“I do not,” Colin complained; “it’s just two people! Two!” and Astrid put a stop to this nonsense by striding onto the dance floor and asking her cousin to dance.

Rachel had invited her old faculty buddies to the wedding, which meant that when her tango with Colin was done they all came over to take their turn with the bride on the dance floor. Gianluca, their dour department chair, waltzed with her to “Moon River”, and then Simon sidled over to claim a dance.

“Well done,” Simon drawled as they sailed away to strains of Legend’s “Ordinary People”. “Despite refusing to play the game, it looks like you’ve won first prize after all. All the prizes, in fact.”

Rachel snorted. “You used to tell me Nick couldn’t be so perfect, that he must be secretly hiding a love child in Queens. Or that he was a serial killer! When this was his secret all along: he’s just super rich.” Simon rolled his eyes, and she added, slyly, “Now, it’s your turn. You still seeing Lisa? You should put a ring on it. I could even get John to give you a good deal on the performance fee.”

Simon said, “Monogamy is for the birds, Rach. Love isn’t a zero sum game, and sex definitely isn’t. Things are fabulous now, but you might find that maximizing your happiness, and Nick’s, might require a change of strategy.”

This was just Simon being his usual ridiculous self, though Rachel did look quickly over her shoulder to make sure her mother-in-law wasn’t nearby to hear it. “You writing another paper on the economics of open marriages? Pretty sure Gianluca told you it was the fastest way to reach Nash mutual-defect equilibrium.”

“Not open marriages. Or, not just open marriages. Triads! Lisa’s also seeing Bradley, and, you know, the boy is a total catch — and also a doctor. I would absolutely hit that. Plus with a triad household you’d really get economies of scale! I have an abstract ready for peer review!”

“Too much information,” Rachel said, decisively, and steered them toward Oliver and Peik Lin on the dance floor, so she could offload Simon onto her best friend, who might have more patience for discussing her coworker’s first draft on the economics of polygamy.

Oliver didn’t seem to mind his dance partner being switched out for the bride. “Your custom Dior is holding up wonderfully,” he remarked. “How about you guys?”

Rachel looked across the dance floor at where Nick was dancing with his mom. Eleanor was wearing navy, her fingers sparkling with jewels; in a nervous reflex, Rachel twisted the emerald Eleanor had given her around her own ring finger.

“We’re holding up,” she said, slowly. “It hasn’t been an easy ride. But the path of true love never ran smooth, right?”

Oliver followed her gaze. “Ah,” he said. “That’s to be expected. I mean, she’d never really think any girl was good enough for her Nick.” He smiled wryly as he turned back to Rachel. “And, you know, she’s right about that. Except not in the way she thinks.”

Rachel swallowed. She didn’t realize she’d have to fight this battle over and over again; she’d also thought Oliver was on her side. Her voice was rock-steady as she said, “I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean to put me down at my own wedding.”

“I would never!” Oliver held up a hand. “That’s not what I meant! Look, Nick’s totally in love with you. He thinks the sun sets and moon rises on your lovely-albeit-not-classically beautiful face … But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t also love someone else as well.”

Rachel continued dancing. She couldn’t believe how calm she was. She also couldn’t believe this was happening again; then again, her darling groom had been making a habit of keeping difficult things from her and hoping that they would just magically resolve by themselves. “Why would you say that?”

“I should never have said anything,” Oliver muttered. “Classic case of foot-in-mouth disease, together with a side order of blithering idiocy.”

“Oliver...”

“Maybe he’s gotten over it? Nick’s clearly told himself he has, anyway.” Oliver sighed, miserably. “But it’s not easy to shake this kind of thing, especially when they’ve known each other for ever.”

“Who is it?” She was pretty sure it wasn’t Amanda, because Nick would never have misled her in that way.

Oliver had gone limp with misery; she had to forcibly hold him up to keep him dancing with her. “I should really let him tell you himself.”

“It’s going to be worse for everyone if I have to get it out of him! Which is why it needs to be you.” Rachel took a deep breath. “Tell me.”

When he did, she discovered she already knew who it was. Not a problem with the lighting, then.

 

*

 

Rachel didn’t bring it up that night. She needed the time to mull over it, and besides, there was wedding-night sex to be had. She’d never been one for clichés, but it had been incredible, mind-blowing sex — the best sex of her entire life, and, contrary to popular belief, she had actually been round the block enough times to know. Her new husband was slyly inventive, generous to a fault, and his tongue was gymnast-level flexible. She came four times, the last time so hard she thought she might have pulled something, and, wrung out by sex, she fell asleep in his muscular arms.

She woke to the smell of coffee. The Sir Stamford Raffles suite in the waterside Fullerton Bay Hotel seemed larger than Rachel’s lecture hall in NYU. The hazy morning sunlight filtered through the canopy of the colonial-era four poster bed, and turned Nick’s tousled bedhead into a burnished crown.

He’d brought in a breakfast tray, the sheet knotted around his waist as if he’d stepped out of a romcom. “Good morning, Mrs Young. I know you like your eggs over easy.”

She stretched, the lassitude of too much sex weighing on her limbs. “I do! Bring them over here.”

He did that, and they broke their first fast as a married couple together in contented silence.

Rachel knew Nick loved her as much as she loved him. They were really good together, lock and key, an optimally complementary, co-operative team. The sex had always been great, and after their engagement it got even better; after last night, she’d bet good money on continuing that winning streak into their marriage. She'd say he completed her — except no one person could really complete another, and absolutely nobody wanted to channel Tom Cruise these days.

She’d thought she completed him, too, as much as anyone could. But if Oliver was right about this, then she’d been wrong.

Nick took the tray away when they were done, and set it on the nearby coffee table. The sheet had come loose in the course of breakfast; Rachel was temporarily distracted by the sight of Nick’s stellar abdominal muscles. Then she shook herself. She had to focus if she wanted to have this conversation now, and she did — she wanted to start their marriage off on the right footing, of complete and utter honesty, with no more secrets between them.

Nick smirked a little when he caught her looking. “I love you,” he said; it was seriously the sweetest thing.

“I know you do.” Rachel took a deep breath, and then plunged ahead. No more secrets. “Although — and this in no way detracts from my saying I know you love me — Oliver seems to think you’re in love with someone else as well.”

Nick went absolutely still. His handsome jaw set squarely; all the muscles in his body clenched tightly, turning him into a bulging marble statue of himself. Rachel found she couldn’t say anything, or move, or even breathe: the air in her lungs seemed to have turned to ice.

Then, abruptly, Nick got up and headed for the door. He didn’t stop to put on his clothes; the light slid over his bare skin and the muscled globes of his ass.

Between his teeth: “I’m going to kill him!”

Rachel finally regained her powers of speech and movement. She launched herself across the room just in time, and managed to tackle Nick around the waist before her husband could charge naked out of their suite.

“Wait! Wait. Don’t kill him! I hit him with my game theory mojo, there was no way he could resist.”

Nick tensed, muscles coiling as if he meant to throw her off him, and then the fight sagged out of him. He let her lead him back to the bed; he sat on its edge with his head bowed. She settled in beside him, and he let her hold his hand. They sat like that for a long time in silence.

Eventually, he found his voice again.

‘It started a long time ago. We were kids together. I never thought anyone would ever really get me like he got me, at least not until I met you.” He looked down at their linked fingers. “But Mom would never have understood. His dad would have killed him. We were both the eldest sons, which meant we were supposed to get married and have biological children to continue our family lines, you know? Plus, we actually both liked girls, too, so the whole marriage-to-women and babies decision wasn’t hard.”

He swallowed. “What was hard was deciding we couldn’t see each other any more. I had to go halfway round the world before it was far enough away.”

Rachel’s heart ached. She’d once, uncharitably, thought Nick had never known what sacrifice meant, that he’d never had to give anything up over the course of his supremely privileged life; now, looking into his handsome, miserable face, she knew she’d misjudged him.

“What if I told you you didn’t have to?”

The words sprang from her lips as if they’d come straight from her hindbrain. But when she stopped to think about it, she realized they’d been there ever since she’d watched Nick and Colin together on the dance floor; and before that, when she’d sat her mother-in-law down at the mahjong table and told her she’d loved Nick enough to set him free.

He looked up from his hands. The disbelief in his face was plain as day.

Rachel said, surprising herself: “Look, I love you. I was even willing to let you go and marry someone else, if it meant that you’d be happy. If loving Colin makes you happy, let’s find a way for you to keep seeing him.” As an afterthought, she added, “We don’t need to tell your mom.”

Nick shuddered at the prospect, and then he cupped her face in his hands and covered it with kisses. His own face was bright as a child’s on Christmas morning. “You are amazing. I’m not sure what I ever did to deserve you.”

Rachel let him kiss her, grinning, “Love isn’t a zero sum game, as people keep telling me. Besides, Colin's really hot!”

“He is! So hot.” Nick hesitated, a cloud passing over his face. “But we’d never get to try it for real. Colin’s happy with Araminta; he’s definitely gotten over me.”

Impulse seized Rachel; she remembered how it had felt, being held by the both of them on the dance floor last night. She murmured, “He is, he’s crazy about her. But, nuts as it sounds, I think he might be up for trying something with us. And, you know, I think she might be up for it as well.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“They were talking about sharing last night, when we were dancing. Something tells me they’ve done that before. Also, isn’t group sex the kind of thing you crazy rich folks do for kicks?”

She’d been teasing, but Nick actually looked a little sheepish again. “As it happened, we might have had a night together, after Colin and Araminta had just started dating, and before I met you. But it was just the one time. After that, I figured I needed to make a clean break.”

“What was it like?” Rachel asked curiously. She discovered she really wanted to know if Araminta’s skin was as soft under her clothes, and if Colin’s agility on the dance floor translated to the bedroom as well.

Nick looked into the distance. “Amazing. Different. I thought it’d be weird with three of us, and that Araminta would be a bit nervous at first, but it turns out she was the one who was the most into it.”

Last night, after Oliver’s startling news, Rachel had sought Simon out and spent ten minutes getting him to walk her through his abstract; it had actually made a certain amount of sense. “Game theory suggests a polygamous marriage can actually increase the amount of happiness for all participants. But for maximum symmetry and satisfaction, there should be an even number of partners in the unit.”

Nick put his arms around her and slid her into his lap. He said, archly, “Does game theory have a suggestion for how four people have sex together?”

Nick’s casual tone belied his interest; in Nick’s lap, Rachel soon realized just how interested he’d become. Her own heart was beating very quickly. By now, she wasn’t surprised at how calm she was, but what surprised her was discovering she'd become pretty interested herself.

But maybe she shouldn’t have been surprised. She’d had enough of being told she would never be enough for Nick. And could any one person ever be enough for another? Especially when that other person was Nicholas Young, heir to the multi-trillion dollar Tyersall business empire, as rich and smart and also handsome as Bruce Wayne, without the fetish for dressing up in tights and fighting crime — how could one woman ever be enough for him?

Maybe it was true, maybe no one person could never truly be enough for anyone. But with Colin, and Araminta, maybe none of them would have to be.

“I don’t know, but I’m game to find out. Think they’ve got plans tonight?”