Are long-distance relationships bulletproof? The Cheater’s Dilemma

Are long-distance relationships bulletproof? The Cheater’s Dilemma

Yeah, let’s talk about relationships: a sensitive topic where “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”. Besides the human unconditional need for love and belonging, there’s something deeply fascinating every time friends try to help each other like: “she’s not interested, stop talking to her” or “go for it! What are you waiting for?” The truth is that you just want to see them happy and so “you give the best advice to your friends and not take it for yourself”. Such wise words from Big Sean! It happens over and over…

In recent times I’ve been hired as Dr. Love by some of my closest friends and this is a role I barely played in my life until now. After all, my love record has always been far from perfect as I mentioned in a TV show some days ago. In this scenario, why are my friends trusting me their feelings, anxieties, and dilemmas? I may find a couple of reasons but that’s another story for another time. Considering my growing “customer base” of restless hearts, I decided to lay the groundwork for a heuristic problem-solving strategy. I thus went back to my Microeconomics’ despairing classes (yes, I never thought I’d do this) to find the most widely used game in game theory: the prisoner’s dilemma.

So what’s the twist here? We’ll be applying the dilemma to long-distance relationships hoping to understand the love game better! But before we get our hearts “dirty”, let’s recap what the prisoner’s dilemma is about.



Two prisoners are accused of a crime. If one confesses and the other does not, the one who confesses will be released immediately and the other will spend 20 years in prison. If neither confesses, each will be held only for 2 years. If both confess, they will serve 5 years in jail.

the prisoner's dilemma long-distance relationships

The police will question them simultaneously in separate rooms so they cannot talk to each other. Given that neither prisoner knows whether the other has confessed, the best strategy will be for each to confess himself. However, when each prisoner acts on their self-interest to go immediately free, both end up being worse off: 5 years in jail instead of 2. That’s the dilemma! In light of these combinations, we’ll try to understand what the best outcome is for the partners in crime.

Nash Equilibria: the best strategy a player can follow taking into account the other player’s decision.

Sometimes like with long-distant relationships, we need to predict what the other person is doing so that we make the best possible decision. Regarding Prisoner 1 (P1) and Prisoner 2 (P2), join me over their payoffs:

the prisoner's dilemma long-distance relationships

Bittersweet decision


P2 can either confess or not. If he confesses, he gets -8 or 0. If he doesn’t, he gets -10 or -1. So the highest-payoff decision is to confess (0 is the highest number) to get out of jail. On that basis, what’s the best strategy for P1? Between confessing (-8) and not confessing (-10), he is better-off with the first.

Nash Equilibria: Confess, Confess (-8;-8). This means that both prisoners will serve 5 years in jail: the best decision one can take relying on others.

This combination is only possible if it meets 2 consistency requirements:
a. Complete information: the player knows the outcome of his decision and he’s aware that other gets the same deal;
b. Rationality: one’s expectations about the other player’s decision must be rational.


Not such a bad decision


Is serving 5 years in jail the most efficient outcome? I don’t think so! If you look at the matrix, they could have only spent 2 years in jail! That leads us to the following concept:

Pareto Optimal: the most efficient strategy for both players since one better move from one won’t let the other worse-off.

Back to our game, this situation would have happened in case both prisoners had decided not to confess (-1;-1).




I know… You weren’t expecting a game theory class from a storyteller but you’ll see how interesting this story will become. Dear reader, hold your breath because long-distance relationships are about to take off!

Erasmus; volunteering/holidays abroad; expatriation… Either we went through such challenging times in the course of a relationship or we know someone who dealt with them. “Does she still feel the same for me? Has she met someone else? Has she cheated on me without saying a word?” We get out of our minds and so we call a friend in desperation. “Help me!” No worries. Here I am.

Welcome to the troubled lives of Luís and Jelena: a young couple who’s been living a long-distance relationship for the last month. They met in Lisbon while Jelena was doing her exchange semester in the same university as Luís. The chemistry of their studies spread out to a “friends with benefits” relationship whose future is yet to be determined. Following a 6-month period, she’s back to her home country and the question instantly arose in their minds (and hearts): “can we live apart, together?”

The connection between Luís and Jelena used to be crystal clear but the distance turns out to be something hard to deal with. Having said that, they’re not forcing each other into a commitment. Between the lines of this sentimental turmoil, they’ve been overwhelmed by a deep frightening thought: “did she/he cheated on me? What if I cheat on her/him?” The cheater’s dilemma.

Now imagine that the 2 of them actually did it. I know it’s heart-breaking but shit happens sometimes… If one confesses and the other does not let’s assume the latter will end the relationship and the former takes the blame. If neither confesses, they decide to stay together in the distance based on a lie. If both confess, they break up based on honesty and open communication.

the cheater's dilemma long-distance relationships

To make this exercise work, we’ll assume they don’t know if the other person cheated on them; can’t ask questions to common friends neither be stalkers to other’s Instagram stories.

Given that neither Luís nor Jelena knows whether the other has cheated, what strategy will work on their own interest: confess or not confess? Peace of mind or sexual stimulation? Unfortunately, I’m going to stick to a pessimist view of the world. Due to human being’s cowardice and dishonest communication, the best strategy will be for each not to confess.

As seen in the prisoners’ examples, if both act on their self-interest they will end up being worse-off: staying together based on a lie. In other words, living a fake relationship at a distance with someone who’s not being respectful to them. “Confess” is certainly the most correct decision here but we all know it’s harder said than done.

At the same time, the one who confesses will hear the “mother******” word by the one who did the same and refused to tell the truth.


Clash Equilibria


Complex right? When Nash Equilibria (the best strategy a player can follow based on the other’s decision) is analyzed through the lens of ethically questionable behaviours, the definition of “best strategy” is at least dubious. Here are the payoffs:

the cheater's dilemma long-distance relationships

What is the Clash Equilibria here? New naming but same reasoning as before. Considering that Luís and Jelena won’t confess that they cheated, the other will do the same.

Clash Equilibria: Don’t confess, Don’t confess (-8;-8). They’re living a dream but probably it won’t last longer…


Mutual Respect Pareto


Please, don’t get depressive. There’s still hope for this dilemma! In particular, Luís and Jelena can be both better-off if they decide to tell the truth to each other. The relationship comes to an end and the aftermath is never easy to handle. Nevertheless, family, friends and some extra Kleenex will be there to make them feel better!

Mutual Respect Pareto: Confess, Confess (-1;-1). The most respectful strategy for this couple.

That’s it! Thank you for joining this Loveconomics class. Now you ask: “are long-distance relationships bulletproof?” It depends (typical teacher’s answer). Anyway, I hope the Cheater’s Dilemma helped you understand one simple thing:

“Honesty does not always bring a response of love, but it is absolutely essential to it.” - Ray Blanton.

P.S. A big kiss to my friend Maria who trusted me her emotional journey and inspired me to write Luís and Jelena’s story.

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