Why Do People Play Mind Games in Relationships?

Is Playing Mind Games Emotional Abuse?

What is a mind game? Generally, a “mind game” is a manipulation tactic, when someone intentionally chooses words and actions in hopes of controlling a situation or person. While “mind games” are intentional, they may also be subconscious, especially if the manipulator is young or has mental health issues. They may not be aware of the game they’re playing, or of the impact it has on others, but they’re still intentionally seeking control.

“Gaslighting” is a classic example of a mind game that can be a form of emotional abuse. This is when someone denies or distorts reality to make their partner doubt their perceptions. It’s a tactic commonly associated with narcissistic behavior—not the same thing as your grandma genuinely not remembering your fourth-grade dance recital. If, however, your grandma denies that she attended your fourth-grade dance recital, despite the fact that you have photo evidence and vividly remember how she said you looked fat in your leotard, the bad news: grandma’s a gaslighter.

The “silent treatment” and “withholding” are also commonly employed mind games, and if they happen regularly in one of your relationships, it could be emotional abuse. We’re all guilty of being manipulative to get what we want from time to time, but the question of abuse comes in when we’re not able to own it and change, constantly repeating toxic behaviors no matter who gets hurt.

1. Trust your instincts. If you feel like something’s off, say something. Manipulation tactics often rely on the victim doubting their own reality. By staying true to your feelings and perceptions, you may be able to render someone’s mind games useless.

2. Establish boundaries. If you think you’re being manipulated, say something. Give them a clear picture of what treatment you will or won’t accept. Healthy relationships thrive on open communication and mutual respect. If they continue playing mind games after you’ve told them to stop, that’s a sign that their behavior is emotional abuse, not just a one-time mistake.

3. Seek support. A major way that emotional abusers are able to get away with their behavior is that they make their victims feel embarrassed or afraid to tell others what’s going on. Share, share, share your experiences with trusted friends, family members, or counselors. When you’re in the middle of someone else’s mind game, getting an outside perspective can help you stay connected to what’s true vs. what your manipulator wants you to think. Validation from others can reinforce your sense of reality and help you identify when you’re in an emotionally abusive situation.

Reasons Why People Play Mind Games in Dating Relationships

I hear from many of you about how confusing and frustrating dating relationships can be. It is simply hard to understand the opposite sex, especially when the person you are interested in plays mind games. It can get in the way of a deep meaningful relationship.

Dawn asked: Why do guys bother with the mind games? You know, when they say one thing and mean another just to get what they want?

To be fair, girls play mind games too. So let's include both sides here. There could be several reasons why guys or girls play mind games, and sometimes they don't even know they are playing games because they are so unaware of their own needs, much less yours.

If you’re wondering how to figure out whether you’re in a relationship with someone who plays emotionally abusive mind games, here are three tips:

Here Are a Few Reasons I've Observed Over the Years and How to Respond.

Reason 1: To Manipulate

Some people use mind games to selfishly manipulate others so they can get what they want to meet their own unmet needs. This may include:

  • sex
  • always having someone by their side
  • having someone adore them
  • a need to control someone
  • hoping another person will heal their deepest hurts
  • boosting their self-image because they have someone to show off to others
  • having someone to listen to them

Not all these needs are wrong, or unhealthy. It is the way they go about getting those needs met that can be selfish and hurtful.

So, what should you do in this case?

Call Their Bluff

It's important for the person who is playing mind games with you to know that you know the game is being played. You may want to confront them directly and ask what exactly their motives are in your relationship. This will do one of two things: it will either challenge them to stop the games with you and move on to someone else, or they'll quit not only messing with your head but also with your heart. You don't need to waste time with mind players. Who needs the drama? Not you! Read about how to have a meaningful relationship here.

Perhaps they are unaware of his manipulative and game-playing ways. Someone once said, "A liar will first lie to himself before lying to others." Your willingness to lovingly, but firmly, confront someone about what they have clearly been doing may help them to stop a game they may not even know they are playing. But remember this: don't simply listen to what they say, watch what they do. That will tell you more about motives than anything. I want very much for you to have a great, loving relationship, but I sure don't want you hurt by a game player. You can do much better than him.

What's Another Reason for Mind Games?

Reason 2: They Like the Rush

Kourtney asked: "Why would a guy flirt and act like he likes me and then all of a sudden stop? I have this guy friend who would email daily and tell me everything that’s going on and then he just stopped." In another question, Brittany asked: "Why in the world do guys act like they like you one minute and then the next they treat you like they barely know you?"

Some people want to see if they can get a guy or girl to like them. To them, it is more like a game or a challenge. They say to themselves, 'If I can get a girl or guy to fall for me, then I must be pretty cool". All of this comes from low self-esteem and an unawareness of how they hurt others. Still, others are in a frantic state of mind, wanting that thrill of knowing at least one person cares about them. It’s like a high. But they soon get bored once they think the person they have been pursuing actually likes them. Then they are on to the next conquest. The hunt is on for the next rush. Sadly, many people have very little insight into what they are doing and why.

Well, that stinks...so now what?

Confront and Move On

You have a choice in this. You can choose to confront this guy and ask him what he’s really feeling (be prepared for him to become angry and defensive because no one likes being found out — remember, he may not fully understand why he’s doing what he’s doing either!). Or you can take his indifference as a clue that he’s not truly interested in you, and move on. You don’t have to be a victim of another person’s lack of consideration for others. 

I Have One More Reason for Mind Games...

Reason 3: Testing The Water

Other times, people play with your mind in an attempt to find out how you feel about them. It takes so much courage to be vulnerable enough to share our deepest needs of wanting to love and be loved. What if you tell someone you really care for them and you are rejected in some way. You may feel like you are being led on, but perhaps the other person is just too nervous to make the first move.

Riah asked: “When you know a guy likes you and that guy knows you like him, then why does it take so long for him to make the first move?”

For years, there’s always been pressure on guys to make the first move. Now it seems girls are getting more aggressive all the time. Still, in many relationships, both genders (either consciously or unconsciously) expect the guy to be the initiator and the girl to be the responder.  Remember, a lot of guys act tough and macho, but inside they are also afraid of rejection.

Wondering how to move things forward...

Suggest Defining the Relationship

You may want to help each other out by making a simple suggestion. You might say something like this: "You know, you and I have been talking to each other for a while and I’m a little confused. So let’s define our relationship." This allows you to talk about it in a non-threatening way. Being emotionally open and vulnerable isn’t easy, but it might have great rewards or allow you to move on.

Remember that nobody’s perfect, and we’re all learning. If you’ve caught yourself playing mind games, take the opportunity to own that and do better. If you think you might be in an emotionally abusive relationship, speak up, set boundaries, and ask for support. As always, please reach out to one of our Hope Coaches if you need more clarity on healthy relationships and emotional abuse. We’re here, so you never have to deal with life’s toughest questions alone!

Dawson McAllister
Dawson McAllister, also known as America's youth pastor, was an author, radio host, speaker, and founder of TheHopeLine. McAllister attended Bethel College in Minnesota for undergraduate work where he graduated in 1968, began graduate studies at Talbot School of Theology in California, and received an honorary doctorate from Biola University.
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24 comments on “Why Do People Play Mind Games in Relationships?”

  1. Games are for children and any adults who subjects another adult to this selfish, immature, dramatic bs needs to be alone.
    No healthy person looking for a healthy relationship wants anything to do with games. And in the end the game player always ends up alone. If you have to manipulate someone to get them then you sure as hell will not be able to keep them.
    Oh and games are the one thing that can turn love to hate then to indifference in 1 second. The second your game is blown up, is the last second the other person will ever love or trust you.
    Remember in every game there is a loser and in love that tends to be the one playing them.

  2. In March I Met a great guy or so it seemed so ... over the next few months I learned a lot about this person I did not want to learn . He was able to get me to give him large sums of money. I Let him stay with me and I took care of him while he ran the streets . we got into two altercations that scared the living life out of me. If he did not get his way he got sullen and angry and mean. most other times he was as good as gold until his dark moods would hit .and then I was afraid of him .. he blaimed these dark moods on his past. Then he would smoke his k2 and hed be ok .. then he would sleep . I spent so much money on him I cannot even count it . The thing is I was in love with the part of him that was easy going and spontaneous .. we had great Sex and I Do believe that he had emotional problems. I think he was self medicating when he was smoking the K2. There were other things I loved as well he had a totaley different side ... he had a passionate and loving side which was the side I fell in love with.. we had plenty of good laughs together, , It was like living with Dr, Jekeyll and Mr, Hyde. what kind of answer can You give me about this situation? He is currently incarcerated .. but yet after everything that has happened I still love him.

    1. Unfortunately this means seems to be broken. Broken in the sense that he has no self-esteem no self-confidence and does not value or love him self. And if you cannot love yourself you cannot truly love another person. With him being incarcerated and involved with illegal drugs I suggest you not pursue him because your future will not be bright. He will continue taking money from you not lifting a finger to support his own Habit and things will go downhill. You need to love someone that loves you. He obviously doesn’t love you because he does not care about how much money you have spent on him for the things that he has done to hurt you in the past. You are an opportunity to him but he will take advantage of until he bleeds you dry of money and bleed you dry of love. Men like this habit and things will go downhill. You need to love someone that loves you. He obviously doesn’t love you because he does not care about how much money you have spent on him for the things that he has done to hurt you in the past. You are an opportunity to him but he will take advantage of until he bleeds you dry of money and bleed you dry of love. Men like this need an ego boost much like a narcissistic does to thrive on. I promise you when they are done using you for whatever it is that they wanted from you they will move onto the next person and you will be left hurt and afraid to trust anyone again. I was in the same situation so take it from my experience you don’t want to go there. You deserve better than that and you definitely do not want to be involved with somebody that is irresponsible and breaking the law and involved in drugs. They will only take you down with them and leave you in the dust. And that’s a hard place to come out of without being bitter and without expecting every relationship to fail afterwards because you lost all hope. You need to realize that as much as you do love him, you have more to offer and you are more valuable. So you can attract somebody more valuable and you will find that the love you have for him is nothing compared to the love that is out there for you. Stop giving and giving and giving to someone who doesn’t give in return. He might be a sweetheart and a romantic sometimes maybe even soft on the inside when he’s not Dr. jackal. You need somebody that is stable and somebody that has some confidence and someone that likes them selves loves them selves. A man like that will treat you like a queen I won’t be getting locked up in jail because he is responsible and cares about himself enough to stay out of trouble and cares about you enough to stay out of trouble

    2. I think that your first indicator that he wasnt going to be the responsible partner that you wanted is that he needed to move in right away. Its very RARELY just a series of unfortunate events with people like that and this guy is no exception. People with those types of addictions use the addiction as an escape from their emotions. I hate to say it, but he was never going to love you the way that you would want or need him to. And it has NOTHING to do with you.
      I think that you should raise the bar on the types of men that you will accept in your life and KNOW that you deserve it and are worth it. Any man that needs to be taken care of is not going to be a quality partner for you. He will be more like a child and if you already have children, he will be the biggest one that demands the most attention.
      Choose stable men and build your self esteem and take time to find ways to appreciate all that you are and all that you have to offer a quality person. You will get through this.

    3. Their is no answer ive never had one.... Or even a reason or understanding myself its been hell and the worst part has been agony that comes after hurting the ones closest to you.... Im very sorry this happened to tou their is no excuse butknow that if he has really committed to change their is soooo much pain he has to work its going to be a very rough road for him

  3. My Boyfriend and I broke up last week, due to the fact that he became super controlling etc needless to say Weve been doing this dance for over 2 years, break up make up.Today he tells me hes already in another city and he plans on staying there since I forced this due to me breaking up, this is hes reaction. Im so hurt and confused and mostly shocked,hes been sending me photos of where hes staying etc.I think Ive been on the fence about the future and us getting married etc.
    I feel like Im backed into a corner, was never prepared to get this news.We only broke up last week 🙁

    1. sry the same stuff my girl done to me, i suggest and advice, that you stop that crap. The reason why he became super controlling is either he or you, did something bad, and never talked about it.. kinda like you started taking attention from other people which has left him thinking you searching for others which lead him to being super controlling! yeah, thats what happend to me and i too switched the town and stared a new life, i can say its a shame. 5 years wasted for some attentin seeking girl and now everyone is thinking what could have happened if we stayed

  4. i'm unaware that folk may think i'm playing kind games, i don't mean to. it's a defence, i have lots off MAJOR issues and i'm trying to stop it, i'm getting counselling for my issues. feel really horrible that i'm doing this and don't mean to. it's not fair on my boyfriend especially as he's got a mental illness, it's selfish of me. sometimes i think he'd be better off without me as a girlfriend. and i have to stop telling people why i have issues and just be vunreble and it's ok if i get hurt. iv had years of counselling to try help rid these issues and step by step i am and to let go off the past. so you can blast me if you want believe there's a battle going on in my head, iv got depression also 😂. i'm unaware it's mind games, i don't mean to, iv gotta grow and relise it's ok to be in love and vunreble. my issues are the reason i do this without thinking and get defensive as i don't want hurt as been lots as a child, sadly my childhood will always impact on my relationships and friendships. iv got no friends. my boyfriend i love but i'm scared ill hurt him or him me. gotta stop using my past as a reason boyfriends stay with me. i'm a bad person, i play games. but ill self neglect myself cause that's what i do whhen feeling like iv hurt the ones i love. how can i stop. i wasn't aware till my boyfs friend said her and her friends didn't like me. any advice please. i love him soo. sorry it's long

    1. Easy you get into your truck and you find him if hes not at home hes close by, if you know him like you say you do take that leap and knock o. The door! Tell him

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