Thrill of the chase: Why playing hard to get is still a thing

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The psychological underpinnings of making yourself seem more desirable by withholding obvious signs of romantic interest is an age old gambit for dating and mating, familiar to moviegoers, readers of literature and any admirer who’s ever been “left on read.”.

When Dating, should you or shouldn’t you play hard to get?

Lovehoney Ambassador and Psycho-Sexologist Chantelle Otten says honesty is always the best policy, Whether that’s on your dating profile or when you initially start talking and seeing each other. It can be scary to be vulnerable and let your guard down but if you are interested in  someone, be honest and confident in saying you are – even if it’s just in getting to know them better. Most partners will find it attractive and sexy, if they don’t, then they aren’t right for you.”

While typically it’s been seen to be a go-to in the courting strategy of women throughout the ages, it works both ways with men, just as good at playing the game.

“There is a societal stereotype that men are non-committal. This may be related to society’s view that men fear intimacy and that showing emotions isn’t “masculine” or “manly” adds Lovehoney Ambassador and Male Sex Coach Cam Fraser. “To paraphrase Jim Morrison, the greatest fear is the fear of being yourself, and the freedom to be yourself. So whether you’re just starting to get to know someone or are in a relationship, it’s important to face this fear and be authentic. If you are looking for something in particular in a relationship or partner, be upfront,  honest, and have integrity when you share it. Also try and do it as early as possible if it’s something that will impact both of you – i.e. looking for something casual. It can save a lot of time for both parties, shows confidence and that you’re comfortable with your own self.”

If you are playing hard-to-get, what are you actually doing to the other person?

“If you think about things like ‘breadcrumbing’ or ‘benching’ — you’re letting people think you’re interested in them, then pulling away or keeping things as they are without moving the relationship forward,” said Omri Gillath, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, who co-wrote a paper on ths very subject. “You’re not escalating or de-escalating the effort. For instance, you’re sitting there and playing with your phone — phubbing — not paying full attention to the other person and making them struggle to get your attention. It’s sending a double message. On the one hand, you’re saying you’re interested. But on the other hand you’re saying, ‘You’ll have to work hard to actually get my full attention.'”

Does playing hard-to-get work?

Gillath and Jeffery Bowen of Johns Hopkins University studied this romantic aloofness and “attachment style,” the psychological term for people’s way of thinking, feeling and behaving in close relationships. It’s usually formed in childhood falling into two main categories of secure or insecure (being avoidant or anxious).

“Hard-to-get behaviors seem to serve as strategies to self-protect and manage potential partners’ behaviors,” Gillath said. “Women, as we expected, are playing hard-to-get more, and men are pursuing them. Avoidant people tend to be playing hard-to-get, and anxious people are pursuing them. The nice thing is it’s compatible. If you’re secure about yourself and about others loving you, you’re less likely to get involved in such game-playing — and you’re not playing hard-to-get or pursuing people that are playing hard-to-get. But if you’re insecure you’re more likely to use these strategies, playing and pursuing, and it’s serving a role for both sides.”

According to the authors, their study sheds light on how people with avoidant and anxious attachment styles manage their psychological vulnerabilities. Put another way, our behavior in trying to find mates and partners is rooted in early life experiences.

For people with insecure attachment styles, Gillath said playing hard-to-get, or chasing an aloof potential mate, are efficient approaches for securing intimacy, romantic relationships and sex.

“We’re not saying it’s good or it’s bad, but for some people these strategies are working,” he said. “It helps people create relationships and get partners they want. But who’s doing it and what are the outcomes? These people are usually insecure people — and their relationships are often ones that won’t last long or will be dissatisfying.”

For other people, playing hard-to-get is less a romantic strategy and more of a survival instinct.

“Sometimes, it’s not so much about the relationship but about helping people to stay in control,” Gillath said. “Some people are behaving in such a way because they’re terrified. They can’t trust anyone — and they’re doing whatever they can to protect themselves from getting hurt again. So, for them, it’s not ‘playing.’ This is not a game for them but a way to protect themselves and to verify people out there are serious and are going to be reliable mates.”

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The KU researcher said “playing hard-to-get” is one aspect of the psychological power dynamics that define many human relationships, whether they’re romantic or not.

“Any relationship where we have two sides involved is going to have some push and pull,” Gillath said. “There are relationships where one side wants it more and the other side wants it less. The side that is less invested has more power. If you really need my friendship and I have other friends, I’m going to have more power and control in the friendship and could potentially play hard-to-get. The person who’s more desperate is likely to have less control and less power and likely to pursue more.”

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