What Head Games Look Like in Lasting Relationships

Head games take on a different meaning and form in established relationships.

Posted Mar 03, 2014

Joe and Sue (names changed to protect confidentiality) were counseling clients of mine who were "head game gamblers," a type I describe in my book Why Can't You Read My Mind?. In their early dating days, for example, Joe would deliberately make Sue wait awhile before returning her phone calls. He was crazy about her, but did not want to show it.

They had since lived together for eight years. That was then. Struggling now, Joe had come to think  that Sue had a hidden agenda whenever she was affectionate and kind to him. "Here she goes again," he would think. "I know how she operates. She wants to visit her sister for the weekend so she is just turning on the charm now." Joe, in this example, erroneously interpreted Sue's kindness as evidence that she was manipulating him. He lost sight of the behavior at hand because he assumed that she had ulterior motives.

With the toxic thought pattern of the head game gamble entrenched, partners think that they can read each others' minds. Ironically, years of togetherness and shared experience can make the Head Game Gamble even more likely, because partners often believe (mistakenly) that spending years together automatically means they know how the other feels. The head game gamble can manifest when one partner believes the other's behaviors or actions are always directed at him or her. Your partner thinks, "She woke up early and cleaned the kitchen to tell me that I don't do enough." Or when your partner comes home slightly late after a meeting, you interpret it as: "He's obviously paying me back because I didn't take out the garbage like I said I would."

A head game gambler may think, "She's paying me back for watching football all afternoon by not making dinner," but, in reality, his partner just feels a cold coming on and needs to rest. Similarly, another might imagine, "He only said that my new haircut isn't attractive because I said he's going bald," when, in fact, the new hairstyle is simply not as flattering as the previous one.

When you make assumptions about your partner's actions or comments, you will often be incorrect. Remember the old saying about the word assume: When you assume you make an ass out of u and me.

So stop assuming, as a first step to stop head gaming. Focus on what you love and admire about your partner. Giving trust is always the best way to receive it back. We all experience anxiety from time to time in our relationships, but you can let your anxiety be a signal to look at the strengths you have as couple as opposed to letting head games tear you apart. 

There's a difference, however, between developing alternative explanations to feed your own head game gambles and your partner actually behaving in a passive aggressive manner, such as deliberately leaving dishes in the sink, making noise while you're trying to sleep, or intentionally interrupting you with "important questions" as you try to study for a grad school exam.

If your partner is exhibiting unacceptable behavior such as repeatedly being passive aggressive, assert yourself by telling your partner that you will not accept such treatment. Simply say, "This is not acceptable anymore." If toxic behaviors continue, you should consider seeing a mental health professional, or encourage your partner to do so.

Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with over twenty-two years’ experience specializing in child, adolescent, couples, and family therapy. He holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the State University of New York at Albany and completed his post doctoral internship at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center. He has appeared twice on the Today Show, Court TV as an expert advisor, CBS eyewitness news Philadelphia, 10! Philadelphia—NBC and public radio. Dr. Bernstein has authored four books, including the highly popular 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (Perseus Books, 2006), 10 Days to Less Distracted Child (Perseus Books 2007), Liking the Child You Love (Perseus Books 2009) and Why Can’t You Read My Mind? (Perseus Books 2003).