Imagine the game:  you and your partner are holding opposite ends of a rope which has a ribbon hanging from the middle of it.  Your goal is to keep the ribbon dangling above a certain point marked on the ground.

This game is the Tug of Peace.  Unlike a tug of war, you do not want to pull harder than your partner.  In fact you want to pull exactly as hard as she pulls.

That shouldn’t be too difficult.  But what if you feel that she is starting to tug a little harder than at first and the ribbon starts to move away from you.  You will tug back to get it back in line.

But now she feels you tugging.  If she responds, it could easily escalate into an equilibrium in which each of you tugs hard in order to counteract the other’s hard tugging.

This is metaphor for many relationship dysfunctions.  For no reason other than strategic uncertainty you get locked into a tug of peace in which each party is working hard to keep the relationship in balance.

There is an even starker game-theoretic metaphor.  Suppose that you choose simultaneously how hard you will tug and your choice is irreversible once the tugging begins.  You never know how cooperative your partner is, and so suppose there is a tiny chance that she wants the ribbon just a little bit on her side of the mark.

Ideally you would both like to tug with minimal effort just to keep the ribbon elevated.  But since there is a small probability she will tug harder than that you will tug just a little harder than that too to get the ribbon centered “on average.” Now, she knows this.  And whether or not she is cooperative she will anticipate your adjustment and tug a little harder herself.  But then you will tug all the harder.  And so on.

This little bit of incomplete information causes you both to tug as hard as you can.