Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Does Playing “Hard To Get” Feel So Desperate?

Feigning disinterest may be an attempt to fend off vulnerability

by Kirby Goldin, Ph.D.

“Playing the game” should feel like a powerful experience. But for those of us who have delayed responding to a text, the power trip is short-lived, if it ever existed at all. Playing hard to get doesn’t make you a “player"; it makes you someone who is afraid to admit they’re interested.

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
Source: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

I have researched the phenomenon of playing hard to get and learned that this behavior is largely fueled by underlying insecurities and fears of rejection. When feeling vulnerable, many people play games as a last-ditch effort to gain a sense of power in a relationship.

When you play hard to get, you can interpret lack of interest as a result of your dating strategy, not as a rejection of who you are as a person. This may feel safer for a lot of people, but the perks of such a strategy are limited. Feeling satisfied by someone texting you twice in a row after you waited two hours to respond is no match for the joy of feeling accepted for who you are.

Appearing “too needy”

This is a typical scenario: A patient will state, “I’ve been waiting longer to answer his texts,” or, “I told her I don’t want a relationship, because I don’t think she wants one.” Then they look at me as if I should say, “Good job! You’re on your way!” At this point, I usually ask them why they’ve chosen to seem uninterested, and they reply, “Everyone says not to be too needy.”

People often fear seeming too "needy" when they are simply demonstrating the utterly human impulse for romantic connection. For instance, a woman who has been hooking up with a man for a month may think she’s being too needy if she says she’d like more from the relationship and wants to know if he feels the same way. She isn't ready to marry him, and doesn't want to follow him around all day. She’d just like to know if her feelings are reciprocated, or if it’s time to move on.

Societal expectation can interfere with knowing ourselves

When people play hard to get, they usually fear it’s “too soon” to want a romantic relationship. Instead, they tell themselves, “I just want to see him two or three nights per week.” I ask these people if they’re interested in hooking up with other people. If they say no, I’ll suggest that it seems like they are describing a relationship. It may not be a serious relationship, but why not admit that they are interested in each other?

When people play hard to get, they are not being honest with themselves, but trying to conform to societal expectation; i.e. “the rules” of dating. It is critical to focus on what we actually want from a given relationship—it doesn’t make sense to play hard to get because that’s “just what you do.”

Game playing can interfere with genuine connection

Playing hard to get is different than being hard to get, and pretending to be uninterested in someone is different than being selective. When you’re determined to play it cool to impress someone, you lose sight of what you actually want. How are you supposed to develop a genuine connection when you are focused on gaining the upper hand?

Once you're in a relationship, the absurdity of playing hard to get becomes even more apparent: Relationships are built on shared attraction and commitment, so pretending not to be interested is at odds with what you really want.

"Playing the game" is especially painful when you actually want to start a relationship with someone. If you find yourself game-playing, pause and think about whether you’re enjoying yourself. Think about what you like about the person you’re trying to win over. If you’re ready for a relationship, be direct. But be prepared to move on if the other person is not ready. You will be demonstrating comfort with vulnerability, as well as impressive confidence.

Kirby Goldin, Ph.D., studied clinical psychology at Adelphi University. She conducted her doctoral dissertation on the underlying reasons people play hard to get when dating. She has a clinical interest in helping people develop authentic lifestyles and satisfying relationships. She is currently a Psychology Intern at the William Allison White Institute and will be completing her postdoctoral fellowship at New York University. Her future plans include starting a private practice in New York City, where she will work with adults, adolescents and couples.

More from The Contemporary Psychoanalysis Group
More from Psychology Today