All of us at one point or another in our lives play psychological games.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, whether at home, at work, among strangers, or among friends, we have all engaged in games that are sometimes beneficial and useful, and other times detrimental to our health and the well-being of others.
Psychological games are often rewarding to one party and harmful to the other, creating exhausting and messy dynamics in every kind of relationship. Sometimes we are so deeply ingrained in the cat-and-mouse games that define our relationships that we aren’t even aware of what is happening.
So why do people play games in relationships? And how can you identify whether you are instigating the games, or serving as the prey of them?
Exploring Psychological Theatrics
What do people get out of playing games in relationships? The answer is quite simple:
They get something out of it.
Whether the incentives to play games involve gaining security, gaining control or gaining self-esteem and self-justification, psychological theatrics are always ways of fulfilling an (often) unconscious goal.
It’s also important to note that playing games in relationships involves two people, not just one person “victimizing the other.” As they say: it takes two to tango, and games are the result of enabling behaviors just as much as manipulative behaviors.
So resist the urge to victimize yourself or demonize another.
5 Types of Games Played in Relationships
One of the best ways of establishing a healthy and honest relationship is to be mindful of the games people play in relationships. You and your partner – like everyone else – are not exempt from engaging in these forms of emotional gimmickry.
Below I will explore some of the most common psychological games and their dynamics. (You can find more of an in-depth look at these games in Eric Berne’s book ‘Games People Play’):
1. Frigid Woman/Man
This game often occurs with a woman (sometimes man) who is pursued by her husband for sex, but is rejected on the grounds that “all men ever want is sex – they’re so selfish and they’re incapable of just loving me for me.”
Eventually as the husband (sometimes wife) is rebuffed in this way more and more, he loses hope and stops making sexual advances. As time progresses and the husband remains quiet, the wife becomes more and more provocative in her behavior. For example, she might walk around in skimpy clothing, bend over in suggestible ways, or even (in extreme cases) flirt with other men.
The husband, seeing his wife’s behavior, continues to resist seeing it as a kind of “trap.” However, when the wife turns up her provocativeness and begins to engage in more physical contact (e.g. kisses), the husband regains a glimmer of hope and launches in with hopes of sexual intimacy. However, the wife immediately rebuffs him with her usual “See! Men are so selfish and obsessed with sex. All I wanted was intimacy!” excuse.
Reason for the behavior: Fear of sex, fear of vulnerability, desire for more sexual intensity.
Hidden incentives for the behavior: Avoidance of sex due to shame and fear, enhanced sexual stimulation and intensity, self-esteem justification of “I’m OK, you’re not OK.”
2. If it Weren’t For You (IWFY)
This game starts with a passive person (male or female) selecting a more dominant partner. Naturally, the domineering partner restricts the activities of the passive partner, and so the passive partner resigns to the role of the victim with the catch-cry of“If it weren’t for you I could do this, I could do that” etc.
Reason for the behavior: Unconsciously the passive partner chooses a controlling partner as a way of avoiding frightening situations that may jeopardize their self-image. It also gives the passive partner the “power card” to play in arguments, and contributes towards their belief that “They’re OK, but others are not OK.”
Hidden incentives for the behavior: Avoidance of fearful situations, safety, self-righteous victimhood, power.
3. See What You Made Me Do (SWYMD)
Within a relationship sometimes it is common for one partner to get extremely absorbed in a project of some kind. Whether this project is a simple household chore, hobby, or work-related task, it tends to absorb the partner’s time, energy and effort constantly.
When the other partner intervenes however, the busy partner might exclaim something along the lines of “See what you made me do!” as a result of accidentally deleting their whole work document, dropping a can of paint, injuring their thumb with a hammer mishap, or any other instance. Of course, it is the partner’s own anger and high-strung state that causes the accident.
The intervening partner soon learns, with enough of these instances, to not interfere or interrupt with their busy partner, leaving them alone, and allowing them to spend more time by themselves than with the rest of the family.
Reason for the behavior: Deep down the busy partner is actually fearful of intimacy and connection, and so avoids these compromising situations by burying him/herself in the solitude of work.
Hidden incentives for the behavior: Avoidance of emotional and sexual intimacy, confirmation of the belief that “I’m OK, but others aren’t OK, aren’t reliable, are nuisances” etc.
4. Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a B*tch (NIGYSOB)
In this game, the NIGYSOB player selects a partner who is a classic button-pusher; in other words, a person who knows what negative emotional triggers to set off in others at the right (or wrong) times. Both partners in this game experience hostility towards one another, however the NIGYSOB player externalizes their anger, while the button-pusher internalizes their anger.
The problems usually start when the NIGYSOB partner is in a bad mood about something. The button-pusher partner, known for their ability to provoke “hot buttons,” triggers a tirade of anger in their NIGYSOB partner usually with a poorly timed question or comment.
For example, the NIGYSOB partner might come home after a long day at work in a foul mood. The button-pusher, sensing this, might ask something like, “What have I done wrong now?” which triggers the NIGYSOB partner to launch into a long angry monologue of how the other person is “so self-centered, only cares about themselves, is only really an unthoughtful and egocentric person” etc. In other words, “Now I’ve got you, you son of a b*tch!”
Reason for the behavior: The NIGYSOB partner selects a partner who will allow them to avoid their anger/jealous behavior by providing them with a seemingly legitimate way to vent their rage. They then feel justified for behaving the way they do.
Hidden incentives for the behavior: Avoidance of personal issues such as fury and resentment, self-justification of their inability to control their emotions through the use of an outlet, confirmation of the belief that “I’m OK, but other people aren’t,” avoidance of self-responsibility.
5. I Don’t Need You (IDNY)
The I Don’t Need You game is paradoxical in that it is played inside a relationship, but with the rules of the dating sphere. Usually only played by one “femme fatale” or “player” figure within the relationship, this game involves an underlying tug-of-war game. On one side, the femme fatale or player tugs for power, and on the other side the partner tugs for attention and recognition.
A common example of the IDNY game within relationships is when one partner behaves in ways that suggest “they don’t truly need the other person.” This could manifest itself in individualistic behavior like going to a festival or event alone (or with a group of friends), or openly “wanton” behavior such as flirting with other men and women, advertising their “other” admirers, and so forth.
In response to the IDNY partner’s games, the other partner reacts by trying harder and harder to gain the attention and “win” the affection of their seemingly disinterested partner. When the IDNY partner is not satisfied with their partner’s efforts, they might exclaim, for instance, “I could have gone to that screening rather than sit here with you!” or even something as extreme as “I should have never decided to marry you!”
Reason for the behavior: Underneath the IDNY partner’s game is a deep fear of commitment, intimacy, and especially vulnerability. They might fear their own defectiveness, ugliness and impotence, and therefore compensate this fear with the pursuit of being “desirable” and “sought after” even within relationships. On the other hand, the IDNY partner might genuinely be a narcissistic person with the desire to wrap others around his/her fingers.
Hidden incentives for the behavior: Power, control, avoidance of vulnerability, establishment of false self-image, sexual stimulation.
Why do people play games in relationships? There are many reasons as we have seen above. The truth is that relationships aren’t always entered solely to give and receive love. Often there are many other underlying goals and pursuits in play that are a result of unconscious fears and desires.
The good news is that once you become aware of the patterns that constitute these games you will be able to heal, transform and also create relationships that are healthy, stable and fulfilling.
Have you experienced any of these relationships? Do you have any of your own to add? Please share!