7 mind games deeply insecure people love to play in relationships, according to psychology

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No relationship is a walk in the park. That much we can agree on.

Romance often gives rise to vulnerability, which in turn forces us to face our deepest insecurities and fight battles we’ve been postponing for ages. Whether we win or lose is up to us.

Unfortunately, some people don’t fare very well. Their insecurities end up affecting their behavior, and before they know it, they’ve been playing subconscious (or sometimes even conscious) games with their partner.

Want to know which ones?

Here’s a list of 7 mind games deeply insecure people love to play in relationships.

Let’s dive right in.

1) Playing hard to get

It may sound strange that people who are already in relationships might play hard to get. After all, they’re already coupled up, so what’s the point?

The point is to attract attention.

Let me explain.

If you take your sweet time responding to your partner’s messages, give affection very sparingly, or emotionally withdraw for a bit, you’re basically forcing them to take over the relationship.

In this way, you’re coaxing their affection out of them and testing just how much they love you and to which lengths they’re willing to go to re-establish contact.

An escalated version of this is the silent treatment, which psychologist Bernard Golden PhD describes as “a destructive form of passive-aggression” which “creates an atmosphere of anxiety, fear, and sadness that preclude an underlying sense of safety.”

The thing is, refusing to talk to your partner or testing whether they try to pull you back toward them once you pull away can only do so much.

And more often than not, these kinds of games make everything worse, not better. Creating a sense of unease, anxiety, and unsafety is the worst thing you could possibly do in an intimate relationship.

2) Inciting jealousy

Look, I get it.

You’re feeling insecure, you’re not sure how to get your partner’s attention, you struggle to communicate your needs, and so you just… try to make them jealous on purpose.

From talking about a specific co-worker too much to flirting with random people in front of your significant other, you might be trying to elicit some sort of reaction from them just to feel like they still want you.

Been there, done that.

But as psychologist Maryanne L. Fisher PhD says, “Intentionally causing a partner to experience jealousy is a risky strategy for getting attention.”

It’s risky because your partner may get so upset they’ll end up breaking up with you. 

It’s risky because it incites unnecessary arguments. 

It’s risky because it doesn’t reflect what you truly want – for your partner to be more affectionate or to make you feel seen and understood.

3) Keeping a tally of love gestures

I once dated a guy who kept a tally of all the things he’d done for me. One day, he brought it up: “I’ve done X and Y and Z for you, and the only thing you’ve done so far was buy me a muffin!”

I just gaped at him, confused.

Wasn’t he supposed to do all that stuff out of pure love? Was he cataloguing all his little love gestures just so he could compare them to mine? Was he keeping a tally this whole time?

I felt befuddled, but more than that, I felt betrayed. All his expressions of love suddenly seemed superficial. Like he didn’t truly mean it.

If you’re deeply insecure, you might feel the tendency to keep a tally, too. You might think it helps you stay grounded and in charge.

The truth is that it just devalues all your love gestures, reducing them to nothing but business transactions.

If you want to buy your partner a gift or cook them a lovely dinner, don’t do it with the expectation that they’ll return the favor. Do it simply because you want to make them happy.

4) Guilt-tripping

Ah, good old guilt-tripping has entered the scene!

“Guilt-tripping is a form of unconscious emotional blackmail whereby the guilt-tripper feels entitled and innocent of any misdeed,” explains psychologist Lynn Margolies PhD.

It’s also a powerful strategy to elicit emotional reactions from your partner. If you don’t get the attention you want, all you’ve got to do is make them feel guilty, and voila! An outpour of affection is back, and it’s all for you.

The problem is that true love cannot be guided by guilt or pity. If you make your partner feel bad for not paying you enough attention or not giving you the reassurance you want, they might try harder to prove their love to you, but it won’t come from a genuine place.

One person I know once called her partner while he was on a work trip abroad. She cried and told him to come back because she missed him so much.

Apart from an obvious display of an extreme form of anxious attachment, this is also an example of guilt-tripping. He couldn’t come back home, of course, so he just spent the entirety of his work trip feeling bad.

Let this serve as a lesson to all of us: let’s not make our partners feel bad for our own feelings and challenges. Let’s work on ourselves instead.

5) Compliment fishing

This one isn’t as harmful as the other games on this list, but it still bears mentioning.

In one of my past relationships, I used to fish for compliments all the time. I felt insecure and I didn’t think I was getting enough reassurance, but instead of talking it through, I just… asked silly questions.

“Do you love me?”

“Would you love me if I turned into a butterfly?”

“What do you like about me?”

“Why do you love me?”

I feel annoyed just writing these down, but that was the truth of things at one point in my life. I asked questions like this because I needed my partner’s reassurance to feel better about myself.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that these questions got so frustrating that I essentially drove my partner away from me. In a way, I was so worried he’d withdraw his affection that I pushed him away myself.

Self-fulfilling prophecies aren’t fun, I’ll tell you that.

6) Poking at the other person’s insecurities

I was once in a relationship with someone who loved to put me down. He’d pass it off as jokes, but his so-called jokes were rooted in something much more serious: he was deeply insecure, and so he tried to bring me down to his level.

If he lowered my self-esteem, if he threw me off a bit, surely, I’d become just as insecure. Surely, I wouldn’t intimidate him any longer.

We broke up instead.

If there’s one thing that relationship taught me, though, it was to watch out for how you feel when you’re around the other person.

If you feel supported and encouraged to be your confident authentic self, it’s a sign things might work out.

If you feel like you have to filter yourself at every opportunity, like your partner’s words are hurtful and unnecessarily cruel at times, and like you’re in some invisible competition with them although you have no clue what the prize is…

You might be dating someone who’s so insecure they can’t help but poke at your own weaknesses, too. And that’s a big red flag.

If there’s one thing you should feel around your significant other, it’s a sense of safety. Someone who uses your vulnerabilities against you is as far from safe as they come.

7) Twisting the narrative

Finally, let’s not forget some of the most common manipulation techniques: gaslighting, projecting, and twisting words.

You may think that someone who’s insecure will immediately admit to having made a mistake and apologize because they don’t think too highly of themselves, but the truth is much more complicated.

In fact, many people who hide deep insecurities will actually go out of their way to appear confident. They will build a large yet fragile ego, and as a result, they’ll find it incredibly difficult to hold their hands up and apologize.

And what do you do if you don’t want to lose?

You spin the narrative in your favor.

Be it gaslighting, which psychologists describe as a form of manipulation that makes the other person doubt their own perception of reality, or projecting your own insecurities and issues onto your partner, you dig your heels in and fight and fight and fight some more.

Just so that you can win.

Of course, there is no real victor here. Mind games can be so toxic that the very foundation of your relationship can fall apart, and before you know it, you’re on the verge of breaking up.

You can’t solve your insecurities by playing manipulative games. What you can do is work on yourself, learn how to effectively communicate, and show your significant other that you’re a team.

The only way to win is if both of you are victors.

Isabella Chase

Isabella Chase, a New York City native, writes about the complexities of modern life and relationships. Her articles draw from her experiences navigating the vibrant and diverse social landscape of the city. Isabella’s insights are about finding harmony in the chaos and building strong, authentic connections in a fast-paced world.

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