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Is the Person You're Dating Playing Head Games? Are You?

Spotting and avoiding toxic dating behaviors.

A current counseling client of mine expressed great sadness to me recently. Holding back tears, he recounted how a woman he was 'into' was more into playing head games than actually seeing him. While she had initially indicated that she equally shared his enthusiasm to get together again, she had not texted or called him back in over four days.

According to the Urban Dictionary, head games are "someone's lack of clearness or honesty in a relationship, with the purposeful orientation of confusing the partner and prompting stronger affection as well as emotional dependence in him/her." I would expand this definition to include being deceivingly strung along by someone who does not want to commit in a meaningful way.

In my book, The Anxiety, Depression, and Anger Toolbox for Teens, I address the strong sense of vulnerability that underlies dating relationships, which fuels dating head games in adolescents. While young people's brains are developing up until the age of 25, I have too often seen adults of all ages become avid head game players as well.

Early Dating Is Fertile Ground for Head Games

While head games can manifest themselves at any time, the initial phase of meeting and dating is highly vulnerable to such exploitation because neither person knows yet what will become of the relationship. Could this truly be love that will endure the test of time? If so, do just one of you, neither of you, or both of you think this may be the case? Or will you see each other a few more times until one of you cools off and ends it?

Head games played at this stage lead to stress, confusion, and angst. I have listened to many people share painful stories about annoying games played in dating. Following are three of the most common types:

1. Impression mismanagement (a.k.a. exaggerations and lies)

People tend to exaggerate when first meeting—and where is that fine line really between exaggerating and lying, anyway? Some are little white lies, like saying, “I love travel, too," when in reality, you're a homebody. Others are more serious, and others are egregious, like saying, “I’m single,” when you’re really not.

The healthier alternative: Be honest and keep it real. Know your own value and respect that you will be valued more in the long run for being true to yourself.

Similarly, how about indicating interest when you're not actually interested? One of my clients, a 29-year-old, told me of times she has heard guys say to her, "It was really great to hang out with you." Or, "I'd like to see you again," with the eventual outcome of being ghosted by never hearing from them again.

Lying by expressing further interest when there really is none is nothing short of cowardly. I have done this, years ago, and I am not proud of it. Even though you may believe that you’re being nicer by lying, you’re actually creating and prolonging agony—assuming the other person likes you—by creating a false sense of hope. And just like the ripples that result from throwing a rock in a pond, the lie impacts all those people in life of the person you are lying to, who are erroneously hearing about how great you are.

The healthier alternative: Say, "I’m not sure if we’re a good fit, but I appreciate getting to meet you tonight." End of story.

2. Noncommittal about when you're seeing each other again

Related to giving misinformation as described above, you’ve probably heard a few different people you’ve dated say, “Hey, let’s do something next weekend.” But then when days pass and you have not heard anything further, you may wonder whether you should text or call. Maybe you even debate, within yourself or with friends, whether you should wait another day or two. Then the weekend approaches and your date tells you they have made other plans. You feel hurt and betrayed because you’ve been strung along—and left without plans,

The healthier alternative: Say, "I appreciate getting to meet you tonight. But I'm still wanting to get a sense of some other people (or a person) I have some interest in. Please bear with me as I hold off from making further plans with you. I certainly respect that you may want to meet some other people before we get to know each other more. And, in fairness to you, if you are no longer available, I will respect that, too."

3. Guilt Tripping

Trying to leverage someone to see more of you by making them feel guilty is also dysfunctional. For example, a 34-year-old client of mine confessed to me that he was telling someone that his life was really difficult in order to gain their sympathies and further interest.

The healthier alternative: Remind yourself that injecting guilt only infects and compromises the trust others may feel toward you.

In Conclusion: It is crucial that you are open—within yourself and with the person or people you meet—to establish trust. You owe it to yourself to stop head-gaming others and to let anyone else in your life know that it's game over.

For more about Dr. Jeff, click here