The attempted power play in dating is as old as Socrates, but it needs to be retired.
I’ll never forget how overjoyed my friends and family were when I told them that a great guy had asked me out on a date. My friends from college, family, and even complete strangers, were so excited to offer their support. I was surrounded by encouragement, pre-date pep talks, outfit recommendations, funny first date stories, and an abundance of dating advice.
When I look back on all of the advice I was given, there is no doubt in my mind that it was all well-intentioned. But what I quickly came to realize is that not all dating advice is created equal. After that first date with Joseph (who is now my husband!), I tested out quite a few of the pieces of advice that were given to me. While some of them turned out to be unhelpful, others were downright destructive when put into practice.
The advice I became the most critical of was to “play hard to get” because it was a sure way to win a man’s heart. This is something a mother may tell her daughter, but I doubt men are given that advice when preparing for a date.
The idea of playing hard to get is not new to the dating scene, however. Dr. Kirby Goldin, a clinical psychologist who is currently completing her postdoctoral fellowship at New York University, recently studied the phenomenon of playing hard to get and found out that it has ancient roots.
“The earliest instance we have of playing hard to get is documented as early as the 4th century BC when Socrates advised a woman that in order to attract more suitors, she had to be welcoming but also know when to withhold her affections,” explained Goldin. “Women are told not to show too much of their desire for romance, so playing hard to get is almost a last-ditch effort to gain some sort of power in the relationship. It’s the ability to pretend to not be interested and play a game in some way to assert yourself.”
When I was first getting to know Joseph, it was tempting to wait a bit longer to respond to his messages, or feign busyness when he asked me out on another date. I was worried about coming across as needy if I replied right away, or seeming too eager for the second date. But I quickly learned that when I played hard to get, I missed out on opportunities to genuinely connect with him.
When someone plays hard get to get, they’re focused on getting the upper hand and controlling the relationship. “When you’re determined to play it cool to impress someone, you lose sight of what you actually want. How are you supposed to develop a genuine connection when you are focused on gaining the upper hand?” Goldin said. “Relationships are built on shared attraction and commitment, which makes pretending not to be interested at odds with what you really want.”
Perhaps the most dangerous thing about playing hard to get is how easy it is to lose sight of what you want the relationship to be. The person you’re interested in becomes a goal to achieve and you no longer are seeing them as a whole person. If you’re not spending time with them when you want to or talking to them when you want to talk to them, they’re not seeing the whole you, either.
But when worries of how long to wait before responding to a text take center stage, no one is getting to know each other. Instead of worrying about how to win someone over, the focus should really be on authentically getting to know someone.
Goldin isn’t the only psychologist who believes that playing hard to get can hurt relationships. Dr. John Buri, a psychology professor at the University of Saint Thomas and author of the book Intentional Dating, also encourages people to be genuine when investing in a serious romantic relationship. “When people are intentionally seeking a long-term, loving, caring, intimate partner, then playing hard to get will not be a fruitful approach,” he explained.
So how do you break out of the vicious cycle of playing hard to get? The answer is simpler than I thought: “Know what you want and say it plainly,” advises Goldin.
There are plenty of things to take into consideration when discerning what you want from a romantic relationship. Dr. Buri recommends asking yourself in-depth questions: “Is this person going somewhere with his or her life? Is this person trustworthy? Is this person selfish and self-centered? Do you have fondness, admiration, and appreciation for this person?
Playing the hard-to-get game is harmful when you actually want to invest in a relationship with someone. The next time you find yourself doing it, take a minute to think about whether you’re truly enjoying the experience. If you’re interested in someone, be direct. You won’t come across as needy, but instead you’ll be showing vulnerability and confidence — and that is much more attractive then waiting an hour before responding to a text.