Back in my graduate school days, I was discussing Valentine’s Day plans with a female acquaintance, when she quite cheerfully informed me that what she and her boyfriend would be doing would depend on whether or not she was going to dump him. Upon further questioning, it turned out that her decision whether or not to end their year long relationship hinged on what he chose to buy her for the occasion. “If he doesn’t get me a dozen long-stemmed roses, he and I are through,” she chirruped.
“Does he know you want roses?” I asked.
She looked at me as if I’d sprouted horns. “He should know.”
“Why; are roses particularly important to you? did you tell him that you’re going to break up with him if he doesn’t get them for you?”
From her expression, my horns were sprouting a foul-smelling fungus.
“Of course not!” she countered. “I didn’t tell him anything – but if he loves me, he’ll know what I want.”
The discussion went downhill from there, and concluded with the pronouncement that I obviously had never been “really” in love, or I would know what she was talking about.
Of course, I didn’t bother to break the news to my boyfriend of the time that I apparently wasn’t “really” in love with him. Even though the most romantic thing he and I were doing that Valentine’s Day was eating a box of bargain chocolates as dessert during our weekly Scrabble-laundry-and-pizza night, I’m pretty sure we were having a better time than the rose-demanding woman and her hapless beau; the game we were playing had the rules right there, taped inside the lid of the box, and the stakes were never higher than “loser buys the fabric softener.”
When the rules are hidden from one or more of the participants, the balance of power becomes skewed. When the “rules” are not only confusing but also cruel, the stakes are the health of the relationship itself – and everyone loses in the end. Now, I’m not saying that I’m immune; I’ve played these games myself, and I know why we do it. But it’s time to face our behaviors honestly, without fear or shame, and start playing fair.
And, before we dive in, a quick aside: this is with apologies for only referring to heterosexual relationship dynamics. I’m sure, now that homosexuality is more widely accepted, we’ll soon be hearing all about the unfair and stupid head games played in same-sex relationships – and it’ll be an interesting study to see how they compare. However, you’ll forgive a middle-aged biddy raised in Reagan’s America for sticking to what she knows, so for the purposes of this article, I’m looking only at the abusive bits of undue influence that women impose upon their men in the context of a heterosexual relationship.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not here to point any fingers of blame. Gents, these sadistic games we play with you aren’t your fault – after all, any man living today is as much to blame for how the gender roles stand as an orange is to blame for global warming. But it is true that the bits of mental cruelty I’m about to describe are not the adaptations of an empowered population; rather, they suspiciously resemble the maladaptive coping patterns developed by an abused child (which would perfectly reflect the historical status of women in most of the world, at least until the latter half of the last century).
Although the balance of power is at last changing, we’re all still adapting to the possibility of an egalitarian world, and these games are outdated baggage which needs to be jettisoned. There are dozens ways we women use unethical persuasion to exert control in a romantic relationship, but I’ve compiled a list of the top seven relationship games I try not to play anymore – and that we should all stop playing, now:
1. If You Really Loved Me, You’d Be Able To Read My Mind
This is actually the hidden base behind most of the rest of these relationship games. Sisters: men are no more mind readers than we are. The old joke about the woman who agonizes over her boyfriend’s silence when she tells him they’ve been dating six months is a good reflection of the truth (he’s not regretting their relationship; he’s in a reverie about the need for an oil change, because he changed it just before their first date). If you don’t tell him what you’re thinking, and put it into actual words, he’s not going to know. Also, unless the man you are dating is transgendered, he has not been raised as a female, and so has not been socialized to recognize that complex code of half-expressed emotions and hints that even some women (including me) don’t get either. In short, just say what’s on your mind for once!
2. Guess Why I’m Angry
This is one of the most abusive relationship games on this list, and not just in a romantic relationship: the maternal tyrant will also use this one to gain power over her victim. Your man has done something wrong, and you know what it is, but you’re not going to actually do anything so simple as tell him – heavens, no! If he doesn’t know, then, well, he doesn’t deserve to know: no, no, no! This is what we call “letting the team down.” It’s not a fair way to fight, and you know it. If your man’s done something to distress you, then tell him. Sometimes he simply doesn’t know that the vase he said was butt-ugly was given to you by your favorite Aunt Petunia – so give the guy a break and just tell him what’s got you steamed – calmly. Then, when he tells you he knows darn well who gave it to you and starts imitating the way Aunt Petunia slurps her tea, you can let him have it with a clear conscience. Right over the head, with the vase.
Well, it was an ugly vase anyway. Moving on:
3. The Opposite Game
“Some of the lads asked me to go for a beer with them,” your man asks. “Do you mind if I go?”
“Of course not,” you answer, before starting your epic fume when he actually has the temerity to take you at your word. Well, first, let’s just address that egregious double standard: how is it, when we know it’s abusive for a man to not let a woman go out with friends, that we can forgive a woman for the same behavior to her partner? If, for some reason, you’d rather he stay at home tonight, then say it. And then realize that you’ve just told another adult that he cannot go out with friends. This is the most frequent use of the Opposite Game, but there are other, even crueler, applications, up to and including telling him you don’t want a birthday or anniversary gift, but punishing him with silence or withdrawal of affection for following your stated wishes. If we want to be taken seriously, it behooves us to mean what we say and say what we mean. There’s nothing right about saying the opposite of what you mean and expecting the man you love to read your mind – once again.
4. Don’t Stare At My Body While I’m Dressed Up to Seduce You
This is less a game and more the sad and all-too-predictable result of the wide gulf between what we’ve been conditioned to wear to make ourselves desirable to men, and our internal self-esteem in not wishing to be viewed as sex objects. Deep down, we want to be respected by the rest of the world; we know that we’re more than sexy trophies to be won or decoration to be worn on the arms of a man (one on each arm seems to be the norm). But in direct contradiction of our natural self-esteem, every fashion magazine, beer commercial and music video portrays an unrealistic expectation of female beauty – and the clothing we’re encouraged to choose (sometimes as prepubescent girls) is designed to accentuate our sexiness, often trading looks for comfort. Our high-heeled shoes are designed not to support our feet, but to make our legs look longer and sexier. Caught in the middle of this societal double bind, it’s only natural that we resent the wolfish leers in our direction – and yet we’re wearing clothes designed to encourage those leers. So, instead of dressing ourselves up to show off the “merchandise” (and then feeling objectified by the men who come a-shopping), let’s start voting with our dollars, sisters, and start buying – and demanding – clothes that make us feel comfortable (and even attractive, if we wish) – but not on display.
5. Oh, And By The Way, You Are Not Allowed To Look At Another Woman, Ever Again
Let’s face it, sisters, men are visual creatures. If my husband’s eyes didn’t follow that tight-dressed cocktail waitress, I’d be worried. Just because we’ve been conditioned for centuries that our whole survival comes from “getting” a man and then keeping him (after all, until recently, a woman whose man had left her was better off dead) that does not mean that you can’t let the poor man look. His eyes are not his hands, and the most loyal of husbands still can have their eye caught. Their appreciation of another woman’s physical beauty does not mean that they are thinking of straying; it just means that they’re appreciating a bit of beauty. Although we’ve been trained to consider this aesthetic appreciation as objectification, it’s simply a biological impulse, and a healthy one at that. Would you be angry at him for looking at a sunset or a flower? Then don’t punish him for looking at that waitress.
6. I Love You Just The Way You Are, Now Change For Me
A relationship is a lot of work, but a man is not a fix-up project. If you want a hobby, take a pottery class. But if you love your man, you should love him as he is. If you don’t think you can live with him the way he is now, then you’ve chosen the wrong one and the two of you have no business being together. Either you accept him as is – the way you wish him to accept you – or you show him the door. People do change, but they should change on their own, not because someone who supposedly loves them is pushing them in a direction they would rather not go.
7. Everything You Say Shall Be Held Against You
How would you like to live with someone who you knew was noting everything you said, quietly retaining it for later use against you when you inevitably – as we all do – contradict yourself? How would you like it if even the slightest joke was taken in dead earnest, repeated back to you days, even months or years, later, just to prove you wrong? This is the hell that many women feel completely comfortable relegating their partners to. This last relationship game is not only another form of mental abuse, it’s counterproductive and erodes all trust. So we contradict ourselves from time to time. Male or female, we’re growing, changing people, with opinions and ideas that are often at odds with other opinions or ideas we might be holding concurrently, or we might just change our minds from time to time. The result is that yes, we contradict ourselves. So let’s stop punishing our men for something we all do.
To wrap things up, I’d like to say that I’m not blaming my sister women for these relationship games – we learned them from our mothers and grandmothers, and often play them without realizing the damage we’re doing, or even that we’re playing any game. It’s only when we recognize our own social patterns and face them honestly that we can change, and if we women wish to take our place beside our brothers in a true, egalitarian society, then it’s time we grew up and stopped torturing our men in the name of love.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? What relationship games have you found yourself playing – or had played on you? We’d love to hear from you!