The Rules of Engagement: The relationship game you didn’t realize you were playing

You’ve all been that person. That “I don’t play games” person. The reality is, we are always playing a game in a relationship, some are just playing more explicitly or consciously than others.

You know the drill. The story goes something like this:

He’s interested.

She plays coy.

Then he pushes harder.

She responds. Perhaps too much. Texts increase. She buys in.

He pulls back – he knows he has her. Time to play it cool.

She is hurt. She goes for someone else.

He comes back in charging.

If you feel like your relationship is built on a house of cards, you're not alone.  Source: Atlantios / Pixabay

If you feel like your relationship is built on a house of cards, you're not alone.

Source: Atlantios / Pixabay

The up and down, push and pull dynamic of a relationship is nothing new. None of us like to think we play these games but at least in the heteronormative world, somewhere along the line we almost always fall victim to one version of this.  Why is that?

If we explore our evolutionary roots that answer seems a lot clearer. Let’s narrate the above scenario with the voice of our evolved brains:

He’s interested: Sex is a bit more straightforward for men. They tend to crave it more frequently and with more partners than females. That said there are certain conditions that males desire. Men crave paternal certainty (as females we have the luxury of knowing an offspring is ours since we birth it!). Males are more jealous as they need to know that a female is loyal to him and him alone. Typically, this makes him the more aggressive pursuant. He has to be. Sperm is cheap for males, but reproduction is exceedingly expensive for a female. While he can mate with 100 different partners and produce 100 potential offspring, she is limited to choosing one high-quality mate to produce a single genetic offspring every 9 months or so.

She plays coy: Her coyness is partially to manipulate that male into believing that she is highly selective. It may also be an honest signal of her selectivity. Females have to be more careful in selecting their reproductive partner. They need more than just good genes. Females require quality in both genetics and intimacy. Love and connection ensure that the male will be willing to share resources when the offspring arrives and that is paramount to the survival of both mother and offspring.

He pushes harder: “The challenge” of pursuit as a result of her coyness has been idolized in nearly every romantic comedy. When women play hard to get it increases their desirability for the aforementioned reasons. *Sidenote: if you want to understand why sexual assault is such an epidemic this is a good place to start.*

She responds – perhaps too much: She feels like he has the potential to be a good partner. But before reproducing she wants to be assured that there is a bond. One that will last at least as long as it takes to rear an offspring to independence. She floods him with information and questions. Tries to pry into the knowledge she requires to select him as a partner.

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He pulls back: How little of his resources (including time and attention) can he get away with giving her? Any dedication to her means less opportunity to mate with others.

She goes for someone else: Part of the female strategy has been paternity confusion. If a female can secure some level of attachment from multiple males without a clear father, both are forced to contribute on the chance that it could be their offspring. Mating with multiple men who share some connection to the female is a strategy that might allow her more access to resources as she raises the child.

He comes back in charging: His goal is to eliminate any competition. The last thing he wants is to be cuckolded - stuck raising the child of another because there is any kind of paternal confusion. Now he is ready to commit and “claim her” for his own. Possessiveness, overextension of his right to her, often happens here. 

I know. It all sounds pretty ugly, manipulative, old-fashioned, anti-feminist, "Game of Thrones" plot worthy, etc. but it’s how our brains operate when all the other stories are scraped away. Before you make any grand claims about how you don’t play games in relationships, perhaps consider how many moves ahead your subconscious has been playing you.

Your move?

Wake up.

Decide to live consciously and craft a new game. One where both players are honored, respected and playing for the right reasons. Until then, that rollercoaster ride of your subconscious will continue to whip you around in circles until no one feels well.

Everyone deserves a better ride.