Mind Games In Relationships What They Look Like And Why People Do It

Relationship Advice | | , Expert Blogger
Updated On: May 4, 2024
mind games in relationships

Have you recently started dating someone and you seem baffled at their inability to be clear and transparent with you? It could be because it’s hard for them to identify their own emotions, so they need patience, support, or gentle questions from you. Or, they are deliberately being ambiguous. Mind games in relationships not only give birth to a lot of confusion, they also have a negative impact on the mind of the one who is on the receiving end of this manipulative behavior.

At some point in our lives, we have had to deal with people who play power games in relationships. It’s nothing short of mental abuse. You will see subconscious mind games in every juncture of life. But the most common ones are always seen in romantic dynamics.

What Do Mind Games Mean?

In simple words, mind games in relationships are calculated and conscious attempts by one partner to psychologically manipulate the other partner. These are romantic manipulations disguised as love. So, game playing is basically a strategy to mislead, confuse, and make the other person feel powerless.

These mind games are sly and unrecognizable in the beginning. A person playing games does the following:

  • They try to gain power and control over you
  • They play the ‘victim’ card
  • They display passive-aggressive behavior

How to tell if someone is playing games with you and why do people so do in the first place? Below are some reasons and signs which will help you recognize the abuse.

Why Do People Play Mind Games In Relationships?

Playing games requires a lot of brainwashing. People will act as if they love and adore you, and the next moment they will make you feel like you’re nothing. As if you are not worthy of their love. Why do they do that? Find out the reasons below. 

Related Reading: I Don’t Feel Loved: Reasons And What To Do About It

1. They want to assert power

There are power struggles in every relationship. When the natural dynamic in a relationship is skewed, it can lead to an abuse of power. When there are relationship games, then one of them will try to exercise the control that they know they have over the other. One of the reasons they do this is because they don’t have control over other aspects of their life.

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2. They are egoists and lack self-esteem 

You might think that people who are egocentric have higher self-esteem. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most people who are battling self-esteem are known to have an enlarged ego. One part of them will make them think they are unworthy of everything, the other part will make them believe they are supreme human beings: These are just some of the ways low self-esteem in a relationship manifests.

3. They have had a traumatic past 

At the crux of relationship games, there could be a person who has had a terrible past and has now built walls around them. They want to protect themselves by controlling the events of the relationship. Fear and suspicion drive their decisions. They are trying to be completely sure about you and decide whether or not to trust you. They are afraid of being hurt, so they are exercising caution before they get serious about you. 

4. They want you to chase them

Some people are obsessed with the thrill of a good chase. I know this because I have done this before. This pattern stems from arrogance or insecurities. It’s one of the worst traits to have and it’s one of the signs you are in a negative relationship. I used to shower my partner with affection one moment and the next moment I used to act distant and cold.

5. They are narcissists

Narcissists will always end up playing games. They will manipulate you, control you, and want you to be their punching bag. A narcissist will find your weak spot and they will keep hitting it. They will keep testing you to see how far you can go. They will do this so smoothly that you won’t realize they are preying on you. They will make you trust them and then cut you off from others. 

Mind Games In Relationships

What Do Mind Games In A Relationship Look Like – 13 Signs

Another reason that people play mind games in a relationship is because they want to weaken you by making you doubt yourself. Manipulation in relationships is done to make you question everything that’s happening around you. It can look like passive-aggressive behavior too. Now that we know why people play mind games, let’s take a look at what relationship games look like. 

1. Their hot-and-cold behavior will confuse you

Sending mixed signals is one of the most common relationship games. One moment, your partner plays hard to get. The next moment, they hover around you. Everything is good one moment and topples over the next, for no apparent reason. Why are they acting distant? The sole purpose behind playing hard to get is to gain control. They deprive you of attention because they want to become a scarce resource that you crave.

2. Breadcrumbing is one of the signs of mind games in relationships 

Breadcrumbing in dating is another term for leading someone on. They don’t have any interest in pursuing a serious relationship with you but send flirty text messages to lure you in. This is one of the mind games guys play after a breakup. They want to fill the void left by their ex and want to avoid being by themselves.

Due to the unpredictability of their actions, you’re left wondering if something is wrong with you. The main reason they constantly leave you with breadcrumbs is because it makes them feel good about themselves, as they are looking for validation and assurance. They are so not looking for a real connection/support system.

Related Reading: 11 Expert Tips To Stop Being Toxic In A Relationship

3. Love bombing is their go-to way to communicate with you

This is one of the most common relationship games. This is how lovebombing works:

  • They will shower you with words of love
  • They will compliment you and buy you extravagant gifts
  • Their thoughtful gestures will overwhelm you
  • You won’t even realize that you are falling under their spell

Once you fall for them and surrender to their love, they will lose interest. They will stop their love bombing antics and you will be left confused. It’s all too much too soon. They stop all this once you reciprocate their feelings. That’s when you realize they don’t love you, but they loved the rush of adrenaline they got while chasing you.

4. They dominate you

Not only do they make you feel bad for following your gut, but they also dictate your decisions. Your committed relationship is no more a team of two people; it’s just them at the driver’s seat always. Your core values start changing and they get seriously offended when you don’t follow their advice.

Mind Games In Relationships

Shell, a 31-year-old art gallery owner, shares with us, “My ex would tell me they respect my opinion all the time. That’s how I started dating them. But when I didn’t agree with how they viewed a certain piece of art, they would get offended or get me to agree with them by making it a big deal for days. The fact that I’m literally qualified to talk about art doesn’t even matter here; art is subjective, and they left no room for another opinion. It was a turn-off.”

5. They will take a dig at your looks

They say things like “You will look good with a little more contouring as it will make your face look slimmer” or “You’d look great if you lost a little weight from your hips”. Men, especially, are told that they should practice ‘negging’ in the dating world; which is a toxic approach to make someone feel insecure through a backhanded compliment. These are the relationship red flags in a man to be watchful of.

6. They will compare you with their ex

Some people do this because they are still in love with their ex. Others tend to do this mainly out of spite. Playing games is fueled by making comparisons. They do this in order to keep you in a position where you are full of fear. You will begin to doubt yourself and may have the following thoughts:

  • “What if they leave me?”
  • “I am not good enough for them”
  • “I don’t deserve them”

Break out of the comparison trap smartly and just agree with them. “Yeah, she’s so pretty!” “Agreed. He does look very good with those abs.” The more you act indifferent and less bothered by their words, the more they will get bored and end this game of comparison. 

7. They will stonewall you

The good old silent treatment is one of the classic examples of playing games. Stonewalling is one of the ways to manipulate, control, and gain an upper hand in the relationship. Here are some examples:

  • They give you monosyllabic answers like “okay,” “sure,” and “fine”
  • They ignore your calls and messages
  • They accuse you of making a mountain out of a molehill

Deal with mind games in a relationship by learning some tips to resolve conflicts in a mature manner. Find better ways to communicate and resolve the issues one at a time. Silent treatment has a domino effect. It won’t just shut down communication but also leads to other problems like lack of intimacy, deterioration of positive feelings toward one another, anxiety, and stress. 

8. They will send you on guilt trips 

Guilt is a very powerful and complex emotion and when used in a conniving way, it can do a lot of damage. A guilt tripper will point out the efforts they have put in the relationship by pointing out a lack of effort from your side. They will make you feel like you haven’t done anything. As if they have carried this relationship on their back since day one, when that’s clearly not the case. 

Such subconscious mind games poison the bond. The only way to get out of this is by confronting them. Tell them you appreciate everything they do for you but they have to stop with all the guilt trips. 

Related Reading: In Love With An Emotionally Unavailable Man? 10 Tips To Connect With Him

9. Booty calling can also be one of the signs of mind games in relationships 

You are dating someone and you notice that this person is absent most of the time. They text you and call you only when they want to. There’s no regard for your time and bandwidth. But all of a sudden, they storm you with attention and affection. Why? Because they want to have sex. Jean, a model from Illinois, confirms from their own bad experience, “This is one of the signs you mean nothing to him. All the mind games guys play after a breakup, I’ve seen it all with my ex. He would tell everyone I’m his partner, but then not stay in touch with me for days. Unless of course he wanted some action.”

They will assure you they have feelings for you. But their words will never match their actions. To put it in plain words — they will use you for sex. Such power games in relationships leave one questioning their worth. Before that happens, run as far away from them as possible. 

10. They will behave differently in front of others

Picture this. Your partner has been acting cold with you. But when the two of you are with friends or family members, they seem to be all over you, as if they didn’t just ignore you for three hours straight. Or they will pay attention to everyone else but you, and they will not be even slightly romantic with you. They’ll treat you like a platonic friend or, worse, an acquaintance. It is even more concerning when your partner disrespects or acts rude in front of others.


11. They will gaslight you

This is one of the most extreme and dangerous route to playing games. The entire point behind someone gaslighting you is to destabilize you. They want you to think you can’t function on your own. They will make you feel insecure and they will make you doubt your own judgments and memory. The final checkmate is when you question your reality and sanity.

Here are some gaslighting examples we hope you never hear:

  • “You’re too sensitive”
  • “You’re crazy, you need help”
  • “You’re lucky I put up with this”

12. They will act as if you don’t deserve them

Narcissists love playing this mind game. Owing to their narcissistic tendencies, they will constantly try to feed their ego by putting other people down. Such are the toxic mind games men play, just like women do. There are many reasons that narcissists can’t maintain relationships. Their ego and superiority complex often drive them away from people.

So how to tell if someone is playing mind games with you? They will make you feel less about yourself and tell you that they deserve someone better. Or they will make you feel that this is what you deserve — the cold attitude, the silent treatment, and guilt trips. It could go either way and you need to regain control and get out of this situation. 

13. They will give you ultimatums

People who give you ultimatums in relationships can never care about you or your feelings because if they did, they would not give you ultimatums in the first place. It could be about anything. Here are some examples:

  • “Marry me or we are done”
  • “If you don’t stop talking to that person, I will not talk to you for a week”
  • “If you don’t tell your parents about us, it’s over for me”

How can you warn or demand your partner to do something under a given time? That is conditional love. You can’t threaten your partner like that, and call it your ‘need.’ If the one you love ever indulges in such relationship games and threatens to leave you, then let them go. You deserve so much better. 

Dealing With A Partner Who Plays Mind Games

Being with a partner who doesn’t accept responsibility can be quite exhausting. You may end up losing yourself in a relationship like that. Want to know how to deal with someone who plays relationship games? Here’s how you can make your complicated relationship work:

  • Don’t try to play the game yourself and don’t waste your energies in getting their attention
  • Just ask them what’s bothering them and why they are bombarding you with rude comments
  • Ask them if there is anything you can do to help
  • If they don’t wish to engage, remove yourself from the situation
  • Tell them to come to you when they are ready for a mature conversation

Does the problem stem deep? Is it from their previous relationship? Or are they acting out of a childhood trauma? The power of subconscious mind to make things happen is more powerful than you think. Maybe your partner had parents who kept playing games and now they are just replicating those patterns.

Related Reading: How To Respond To The Silent Treatment – Effective Ways To Handle It

But you are not their therapist and your job is not to ‘fix’ them. Avoid mind games in a relationship by putting yourself first. If they are damaging your mental health, get out of this dynamic and find someone else who won’t manipulate you and doesn’t lack self-esteem. Or just spend time healing yourself for a while.

Key Pointers

  • If you’re the one calling/texting your partner every time, they’re playing games with you
  • Gaslighting, stonewalling, and breadcrumbing are different ways in which people play relationship games
  • People may also indulge in games by playing hard to get
  • Making things easier is not entirely in your hands but you can encourage your partner to seek professional help

Finally, there are doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, helplines, forums, and a huge variety of other mental health resources. You could help them connect with experts or suggest that they talk to someone who has been trained to handle mind games in relationships. Going into therapy can help them feel better, calm, and healthier. If you’re looking for resources to help your partner, skilled and experienced counselors on Bonobology’s panel are here for you.

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