How do you know when to be kind, to press deeper into a relationship, or to step back, draw a healthy boundary and set some limits on a toxic person? If only people came with red or green lights on our foreheads or something, a visible sign they’re a safe person to press into a relationship with, or someone it’s wiser to keep at arm’s length.
It’s a deep, important question, so hopefully it won’t surprise you that we’re not the first to ask it. A famous thought experiment called “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” was created to explore this question. Imagine you and another person are thrown in prison. You’re both facing 2 year sentences in solitary confinement. But the DA makes a deal with you: rat on your friend, and you go free… unless they also rat on you.
So now there’re three possibilities: neither of you rats, and you both do 2 years. One of you rats on the other, which means the rat goes free and the other person does 3 years instead of 2. Or you both rat on each other and both do 3 years.
What would you do? Are you a trusting person? Do you put your faith in that other prisoner, that they won’t rat you out? Or do you rat them out and hope you go free?
I’m not going to bore you with all the math, but I’ll tell you it gets more complicated the more the experiment begins to resemble real relationships. What if instead of a sentence, it’s getting food for the day, and you have a chance every day to snitch or keep silent? Are you the kind of person who never rats, no matter what the other person does? (We all know people in relationships like that, right? Who let people walk all over them.) Are you a person who always rats? (We know that person too – someone who’s only after their own best interests.)
It might surprise you to learn that some of the best minds in history have set about tackling this problem – how do we live in relationship with people who are unpredictable? – and they have reached conclusions that are strikingly similar to the model of healthy, holy human relationships we find in the Scriptures.
Relationships are messy, complicated and confusing. There are no easy answers. But when we are willing to try, to put in the work, to take seriously how God calls us to live together, we can find the people with whom God calls us to be in meaningful, holy, life-giving relationships.