When we see potential mates as opponents, targets and obstacles instead of beautiful people worthy of our love and trust, everyone loses.
The thing is, dating isn’t inherently a game any more than the act of putting one foot in front of the other is; viewing dating as a competitive, adversarial pursuit that requires cunning, strategy and deception is not a function of dating itself. It’s a lifestyle choice. It’s not inevitable, not fundamental to the pursuit of courtship, it’s not even as common as you think.
It’s a choice. And it’s one that guarantees you will lose out on all the best things that romance, dating and even casual sex have to offer.
There are different versions of this game. There’s the competitive sport in which players compete with each other to see who can score the most. There’s a version of tag, in which you’re it! Then you’re it! Then this other person over here! There’s playing pretend… most of us have been played by someone who, as it turned out, was just pretending to care for us, to love us, even to like us, all in calculated effort to get from us without giving in return.
And then of course, there’s the ‘but (insert gender here) always wins! It’s time for us lowly (opposite gender) to start fighting back, protecting ourselves, and getting ours every once in a while!’ justification version, perpetuated by Pick Up Culture, Sex and the City, and Cosmopolitan magazine… the Lord of the Flies, eat or be eaten, Survivor: Dating Edition, only without the million dollar prize. It’s not just men that play, despite what you’ll hear jilted, scorned, used and heartbroken women saying. It’s not just women, either; despite the lamentations of rejected, earnest and lonely men.
When I say ‘dating as a game’, I mean that potential mates aren’t beautiful, great people, humans worthy of love and affection, worthy of honesty and vulnerability, of our best. They’re other players, to be held at emotional arms-length, outsmarted, and beaten. Viewing romance, dating, even casual sex as a game is a way of taking something that could be co-operative and uplifting, and turning it into a battlefield in which some win… and someone always loses.
It’s when guys are focused on choosing words they think will subconsciously suggest that their date give them a blowjob, when they could instead just focus on, well, connecting with her, a human woman predisposed to spontaneously engaging in acts of enthusiastic heterosexuality of her own volition! Or when women play hot and cold, trying to shift the balance of power in a relationship.
Games are where people’s feelings don’t matter, because it’s all just for fun, trivial, a diversion, all a friendly competition. Or, because players choose to play, and losing is just proof of weakness. ‘What?’ We can say, nonchalant and smug, when we’ve hurt someone who trusted us and cared for us: ‘I was playing by the rules!’
Playing to Win Means Everyone Loses
Except this isn’t fucking Yahtzee. This is real life. There is no rule book that everyone agrees on, no matter what best-selling authors with financial incentives to the contrary may have you believe… and telling readers that they will lose unless they follow this patented system for playing the game is an excellent sales tactic; framing courtship as a game with rules that everyone knows but you is a great way to scare anyone into a sale. No one wants to lose at this, of all things. Of course, it’s bullshit. But in something so personal as romance, few of us think with our heads and hearts before responding from our fears and unfulfilled needs.
When someone decides it’s OK to cheat because it’s less than a year in, or lies and manipulates, or uses and pretends, and the other is heartbroken… discrepancies like that don’t go to the scrabble dictionary or to a referee. They don’t go anywhere. They just fucking hurt people. People who wanted to love and be loved, who opened their hearts and lives and legs.
Saying that dating is a game is a way to claim that all’s fair. But it’s not. And unless you’re suffering from bone deep cognitive dissonance or have never had a broken heart, you know that’s true. There are members of all genders who say that “all men/women treat it as a game! So I’m just doing the smart thing: I’m just playing defense. If they complain about it, it’s only because they’re used to winning, or they just hate losing. I’ve lost too many times. I’m justified in playing these people.” Right. You’ve been hurt. And hurting someone else will make that better! Yes, it’s a little known fact that breaking someone else’s heart with calculated callousness will heal yours.
I am of course just joking.
In a game, the other players are the competition and you do whatever you can to outsmart, out maneuver, and generally out play them. There are rules of what’s allowed, and they do not match up with the morals of society at large: you aren’t allowed to punch someone in the face to get what you want in the real world, but that’s fine in boxing, encouraged even. Similarly, when dating is perceived as a ‘game’, it is perfectly acceptable to lie about your intentions with someone, what type of relationship you might desire with them, or what you really think of them in order to score… even though you’d never do that to a friend, to someone you actually cared about (unless you’re suffering from a mental illness or serious untreated trauma).
In a game, you score as many points as possible without letting them get any in… aka, you get as much vulnerability, sex, care and devotion, as possible, without actually showing emotion or providing emotional connection in return. You take, you use, you manipulate and you can justify it all because hey! It’s just a game, and players choose to play.
Sounds fun! You go on and enjoy it without me.
What I’ve learned is that most people aren’t playing. Most people are genuine in their desire for connection and honest in their pursuit of it. For the vast majority of people outside of Manhattan and over the age of 26, dating simply is not a game. It’s an honest endeavor, like making a garden. It involves patience, trust, investment, cultivation, and these things are assumed of all those who participate.
Which is why playing dating as a game is so hurtful, to all involved: because those who aren’t playing it expect better of you. They would have, could have, seen the best in you, and been part of bringing that best into your daily life, your every moment. They could have been part of your triumphs, your growth, you being the best person you could possibly be. They could have believed in you, cared for you, supported you, liked you. They could have loved you. They could have changed your entire fucking life in ways you can’t even imagine until it happens. Even if you’re not interested in a long term relationship right now, honest casual experiences can be very healing and positive. In order to actually find romance, vulnerability is necessary. Trust and honesty are necessary. In romance, even in good one-night-stand sex, people are honest and expect the same of their partner.
It’s a trust. If you were a big old smarmy hopeless-romantic-cheesy-cheese-factory like me, you might even say it’s a sacred trust. And playing dating as a game is breaking that.
I tried to think back and remember if there were times when I played games. And there was: when I was younger, I played a game called “Please God, Let This One Actually Like Me, And Not Be Lying To Me And Manipulating Me To Get Sex”.
Here’s the rules: I would meet a guy, and start dating, and try not to sleep with him until or unless I was reasonably sure he actually wanted some version of an honest relationship with me… and not just casual sex, which I wasn’t interested in at that time, because I knew that as soon as I slept with a guy, my feelings for him would become very serious. The fastest way to a woman’s heart is through her vagina, after all. So I stood to get really hurt if I slept with a guy whose sole interest in me would then be satisfied; if it turned out he was just lying to get in my pants. It was very, very challenging for me, because I love sex. And these were guys I wanted very much to sleep with. I would say it was harder for me than for a lot of the guys.
I learned quickly that a man saying “I definitely want to be in a relationship with you! I care for you as a human person and as a woman, in a romantic manner! Let’s be boyfriend girlfriend and date exclusively!” often meant nothing. I learned that the hard way. But they weren’t hurting anyone! They were just playing the game, right? If Sex and the City taught us anything, it’s that women play games all the time! These guys were just evening the playing field.
Because Women Do It Worse, Right?
The thing is, Sex and the City didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was a rebellious response to a culture in which women felt they were the ones that consistently lost in the ‘game’ of dating; the ones getting cheated on, who had to be passive and wait for a man to approach, who had to be the gatekeepers of sex thus denying their own sexual needs, etc. The show was a way for women to take their power back by being active sexually and romantically, instead of passive. It was an escalation in this ‘game’, that feels more and more like a war; it was women dropping the ‘I can play you like a harp’ bomb right back on to the men who, they felt, had dropped that bomb on them first.
And guess what? The show ends when they’re all fucking married. Because even these women, trying so fucking hard to be independent and hold men at arms length, even this generation raised on “I need a man as much as a fish needs a bicycle” just wants to be loved. Their ‘game playing’ wasn’t a gleeful, torturous emasculation of men they viewed as peons. It was women who felt forced to play defense in an endeavor that’s become a minefield; one that is supposed to be about love.
That’s what happens when we think dating, love, relationships, sex, intimacy is a game. We play by ever more ruthless rules, as we look for the slimmest advantage over our ‘opponents’—the very people we ought to be caring for, giving of ourselves for. Dating, love, all of it, is supposed to be about making someone else’s life easier and more beautiful, and discovering something profound about ourselves in the process… not making life harder and awful and confusing and hateful.
Laying Down Arms
I kept expecting men to be adversarial, so I did what any smart woman would do: I played defense. Which involved trying to wait to sleep with guys, trying not to appear to eager or interested, trying to make sure they texted or called more often than I did. I tried asking straight direct open questions to get to the bottom of what they actually wanted from me: whether their desire was for more than just participation in my (admittedly fantastic) sexy-time. I tried not to feel, or at least, not to feel quite so goddamn vulnerable.
Until, one day, I didn’t. Until I stopped.
Until I realized that most men are actually… amazing. Most men truly want to care for a woman, want to have a real, loving relationship that is a haven and an inspiration and a safe place for both. Most of us want all of that. I realized that there are a majority of men who are brave enough to lay down these stupid weapons of Mass Dating Destruction; who are courageous enough to love openly and truly.
So I did too.
There’s an idea that the hurt comes from the game; from dating, from love even. So changing the way you play makes sense as a tactic of self preservation. But the thing is that love doesn’t hurt. Rejection, loneliness, self-doubt, and loss hurt. Love doesn’t, connection doesn’t, intimacy doesn’t. By trying to protect ourselves from those things happening again in the future, we’re actually preventing ourselves from really connecting with people.
In the midst of this battlefield, I laid down my arms. I opened my heart, and I trusted men. I let myself be vulnerable, I shared my true feelings, I was my honest to goodness weirdo self, right from the start. And the facade of the fickle dating-game-player washed quickly away; I didn’t have to stop myself from falling for the guy who was insincere; I was able to see him truly and so, I had no interest in him. It is possible to learn who we can trust and who is being deceptive. There’s nothing wrong with being honest about your fears, or taking it slow. Ultimately, this is about being honest… which involves being vulnerable.
Which is what I did.
And I found my partner. I found the man who was brave enough to be with me, as I am, as he is, in this crazy world, every day. Who is afraid to love and does it anyways, with his entire person, courageously and fully, every fucking minute, and who is so much better for it and who has helped me become better, too.
Winning at Love, Sex, and / or Dating… By Choosing Not to Play
A guy recently said to me that he would love to find a woman he could take seriously; then he could stop playing the game and actually get the prize he’s looking for, that most of us are looking for: honest-to-goodness intimacy. Real, actual love.
As long as he keeps playing the game, That. Will. Never. Happen. Because when you approach someone as an opponent, as an adversary, they cannot love you, and you can never love them. When you approach someone as an adversary, you don’t see their flaws as treasures to be kept safe from the world; you see them as advantages to be taken. You don’t hold them in their success and failure, on their good and bad days; you hold them at an emotional distance. You don’t sacrifice for their happiness. You sacrifice their happiness for yours.
Instead, open your heart. It’s scary, but it is worth it. Dating doesn’t have to be a game.
When we stop seeing it that way, it’s no longer about who loses.
It’s about finding someone you can team up with, so everyone wins.
From the heart,