By Tihana Brkljačić
A partnership is the single most important thing that makes bridge different from other games and sports. Completely depending on each other is exciting, challenging and frightening. I'm convinced that bridge partnership is one of the most complex and demanding relationships in human society. Its delicate, sensitive, and turbulent structure raises so many issues that need to be tackled in order to build a successful long-term relationship.
I'm sure you’ve noticed that in many ways bridge partnership is similar to a romantic relationship. Both often go through comparable stages: (1) the introduction; (2) dating or casually playing; (3) committing; (4) dealing with tensions and conflicts; (5) breaking up or enduring.
The introduction occurs, as in romantic relationships, either suddenly (you come to the bridge club to find a partner there, as you might pick someone up in a bar for a one night stand) or gradually (you’ve known someone for a while, but at some point, you start to think about them as a potential partner). Some people are cautious, choosing carefully with whom they will play, while others take a chance with someone they hardly know. And of course, as in life, you can find a partner via partnership desk, or a friend can arrange a date for you.
Regardless of the circumstances leading up to the introduction, some partnerships enter the second stage, analogous to dating. You start to invite each other to tournaments and look forward to the next encounter with your “perfect match”. Everything's new and exciting, and it almost feels like falling in love. In this honeymoon phase, people may idolize their partners and tend to overlook their flaws. Positive energy and harmony often lead to some unusually satisfying performances which additionally boost the partnership. The two of you are recognized as a partnership by the others, your names somehow fit together; you're a unit. You may be developing your system, looking for adequate teammates, dismissing other activities to play bridge more. Ambitious plans for the future are made as you happily realize that you're committed.
However, just like in life, the honeymoon doesn't last forever. You may overlook occasional bad results, but sooner or later inevitable differences and misunderstandings will cause tensions and open cracks in a partnership. At this stage you know each other pretty well, you're familiar with your partner's strengths and weaknesses. You notice every mistake and refuse to empathize with your partner's blunders. Their attitude, style and temper start to annoy you and power struggles become commonplace.
I believe that the phrase “not ready for a serious relationship” fabulously mirrors bridge partnerships at this stage. So many of us are not comfortable with either exposing our own or accepting our partner's vulnerabilities. As disappointment escalates, we doubt if it's worth putting additional effort into solving issues and repairing the relationship. Many partnerships don't survive the first year. Still, the majority of players would sincerely acknowledge that they'd like to have a steady partnership, but very few are ready to put the necessary energy into the process. Are we all that naïve to expect to find our prince charming with whom every bid will be pure magic and every board a fairy tale?
Two types of partnerships outlast this stage; the doomed and survivors. Neither of these would jeopardize the partnership. But for different reasons:
The doomed are those who gave up on searching for a better match, but also avoided confronting the problems. The partnership became a (bad) habit or a convenient routine at best. They rarely have any aspirations, the thrill is long gone, and again, similar to life, some of them don’t even believe they deserve any better.
On the other hand, survivors are those who managed to maintain the partnership with mutual satisfaction. How?
It could be that they realized that the partnership is more valuable than their ego. Unlike the doomed ones, whose only investment was time, survivors made efforts, adjustments and sacrifices and they're aware of it. Survivors’ partnership is a dynamic, cyclical process where when an issue arises, they work together to solve it. They have bad days of course, and they occasionally flirt playing with others, but there is no doubt who their partner is.
These partnerships last a long time, sometimes a lifetime, and for many, it's the most precious relationship they ever have.
Are you, lucky or wise enough to enjoy the benefits of a steady, flourishing partnership? Are you still in the honeymoon phase where every card has a pink reflection? Or maybe you feel stuck in your current partnership and yearn for change? Perhaps you're one of those liberal souls avoiding routine and regularly switching partners?
Don’t despair if you've never made it to the survival stage. Through the years, a bridge player will find themselves in various, more or less satisfying partnership phases. Going through the processes of formation, stability, tensions and disintegration enriches one’s life. Actually, bridge partnership is a relatively safe arena to exercise social skills and emotions such as trust, commitment, respect, patience, adjustment, empathy, assertiveness, restraint and forgiveness. These virtues, developed at the table, may transfer to “real” life and help us cope with daily stressors and challenges. Therefore, enjoy your partnership, regardless of its current state, if not for its own merits, then because of the experiences and perspectives it provides.
What are your thoughts on partnerships? Share your ideas in the comments below.
Tihana Brkljačić is a psychologist and a bridge player. She teaches psychology and bridge at Zagreb university. She represented Croatia at multiple European championships and at The World Championship (Wuhan cup) in 2022. As a psychologist, her main areas of interest are in quality of life, well-being and communication. Additionally, she studies the psychology of games (focusing on bridge in particular) and consults players on various topics.
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