Relationship Calvinball

Ever heard of Calvinball?

It was created in the great comic strip Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson. He imagined the game as having no real rules – or rather, rules that you simply made up as you went along. Something like this.

The only permanent rule in Calvinball is that you never play it the same way twice.


Of course, this hasn’t stopped some people from trying to codify the rules (in very amusing prose, I might add, kind of like Calvinball writing).

The funny thing to me is when people complain about how the rules are just “made up.”

Can you point to a sport where they aren’t?

Dangerous Territory

For that matter (and here’s where I’ve offended some people recently, so beware) can you think of any institution – such as relationships like marriage – that isn’t also basically just Calvinball? That is: the rules about it are simply whatever the people in power say they are.

When I first posited this, I came under attack in particular from an individual who felt that I was minimizing the fight for gay marriage equality. That hurt, to be honest, as I can honestly say I’ve always been in favor of it, have worked actively in the queer community for various causes, and some of my best friends are etc.

But what puzzled me most is that he would single out marriage. That, to me, seems like the perfect example of relationship Calvinball! It’s been an exchange of property, a biological convenience, a once-in-a-lifetime (pre-divorce) to a however-many-you-want (as long as it’s one at a time!), to tax loopholes and benefits. Sure, it’s romanticized as the “happily ever after” and yeah, I’ve even seen that happen a time or two. But the reality? Over the ages since people started making unions official, they’ve changed, multiple times.

Why? Because the people with the power – either through position or through numbers – decided it should. Heck, even in the contemporary time period, I could get married in the Catholic faith and not be allowed to divorce, or at a justice of the peace and annul the marriage that afternoon. I could marry a same-sex partner in one state and have that official, sacred union disappear as I traveled over an invisible line between states. Until a few years from now, when that state will also legalize gay marriage and poof! we’d be husband-and-husband again.

Or maybe I’ll just travel to a country where I can have multiple wives. Simultaneously, I mean, since you can do that here already as long as you don’t admit that you’re doing it at the same time.

Peace, Love & Understanding

Even people who say they have the same “marriage” are really playing Calvinball, because that one permanent rule always applies. You read about it (or hear about it with friends): “We have an understanding and what follows is some way that their marriage is slightly different from the Platonic ideal. Maybe it is “The Stanley Cup is a Sacred Holiday” or “There shall be no Keanu Reeves movies in the house” or “You can have a lover, just don’t tell me” or “You can have a lover, just make sure they come for breakfast with the kids the next day

As one friend of mine brilliantly pointed out:

It’s a game where the rules you decided on before sometimes mean you’re careening towards a cliff and then BAM you realize you have to change them before it all goes to hell at once–sounds a hell of a lot like ANY relationship to me…

That’s where the power comes in. That’s why we sure as heck want relationships to be Calvinball.

The Creation Truth

The fact that we can tailor our relationships not to fit some outside definition but rather to do what we need to make it work gives us immense power. It means we can publicly or privately thumb our noses at what is expected, at what we’ve been told we should do, and instead do what we need to do.

It’s a constant act of creation and re-creation, and as long as we are clear on both the current rules and on the fact that they may need to change, I’m convinced you can have an indefinite length of relationship. It’s when you start to think that things are the way they are because they have to be, or because they should be, that trouble starts brewing.

But what about Fatherhood? Motherhood? Those can be totally determined by empiric evidence, right?

True, but beyond the biological Yes, we shared DNA anything beyond that is entirely determined by the people in the roles. “Maternal” instincts, in my experience, are not limited nor are they automatic in mothers, and fathers show their own methods of caring in a wildly wide range of ways.

That’s just marriage. It applies to all kinds of relationships, really, from Guild Master in a video game to pater familias of a dynasty.

The question to ask yourself: what rules have you created? And is everyone aware of them?

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