Play is an essential part of our human nature and has, in many instances throughout history, taken the form of games. Games have a way of bringing us together while simultaneously giving us the opportunity to find more enjoyment in our interactions with one another.

The game of chess was actually developed in India in the 6th century and is now played around the world. Native Americans, such as the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Creek, played lacrosse. The Kiowa people I lived among had developed what they referred to as “hand games”, which involved lots of humor, trickery, and a series of elaborate songs. The card game poker, which originated in the United States, goes back nearly two centuries. Many of us grew up playing games like Monopoly.

Our relationships, or in other words, the ways we engage with one another, contain many elements of spontaneity, and yet they also follow a sort of “game plan.” Our game plans have beneficial aspects, as they provide a sense of order, structure, and meaning to our relationships. However, some aspects of our relational game plans can be harmful, and cause hurt in others.

In 1996, the Backstreet Boys released the song “Quit Playing Games (with My Heart),” in which vocalist Brian Littrell pleads to his love interest, asking her to be genuine and stop stringing him along emotionally. The recurring line “Quit playing games with my heart” underscores the pain and frustration of feeling tormented within a relationship where the other person's intentions aren't clear. The song captures the essence of longing for honesty, transparency, and genuine affection, instead of dealing with the back-and-forth dynamics that can cause emotional distress.

There's a certain “gaminess” that's become quite prevalent in the American dating culture. For many, the games being played aren't always intentional, just mindless social habits picked up over time. Yet, for others, these games are deliberate, even calculated maneuvers. These games manifest in behaviors like acting distant to not appear overly interested or seldom returning a man's calls and embodying the classic “playing hard to get.”

It's also true that much of the gaminess stems from people being emotionally wounded. Many individuals, not knowing how to process their authentic emotional responses, tend to disconnect or numb themselves to their emotions. Conflicting emotions held within create ambiguity, and people not knowing how they feel or what they want can be terribly incongruent, resulting in them giving off all kinds of mixed messages.

Women and men can be guilty of leading another person on without genuine interest, simply because they thrive on the attention and energy directed towards them. Some women will give out their number to men, even if they have no interest, just because they want validation. Then there's that aloof attitude some adopt, sending a message that says, “I'm out of your league. You're not good enough for me.” Tragically, there are those who derive a perverse pleasure from the pain they inflict on others who genuinely desire a relationship with them. Those with avoidant attachment styles or minimal emotional investment are most adept at playing these heart-wrenching games.

Emotionally vulnerable men can be like puppy dogs, easily enticed by women who project an aura of innocence while remaining vague about their feelings, but feeding off of the attention they get. On the other hand, women sometimes become entangled in destructive relational dynamics when they pursue emotionally unavailable men who are perceived as having higher value due to their social status, desirability and conquests of other women. These are only two of many examples.

Those of us who deeply desire to love and be loved in return can be especially vulnerable due to our emotional deficits. Often, this vulnerability stems from not receiving the essential love and care during our childhood or even later in adulthood, leaving us with a profound emotional void. Our vulnerability can predispose us to form attachments to individuals who reenact our attachment wounds.

What often happens is that those of us with insecure attachment styles form attachments to individuals who are not truly capable of giving or receiving love. In our attempts to reach out for love, we're getting all these mixed messages. Sometimes the person to whom we've grown attached deliberately says and does things that inflict enormous pain. This can be profoundly damaging, leaving lasting scars that don't heal. For those of us who are especially vulnerable, it can feel like the worst torture imaginable.

Romance Across Cultures

The cultural dynamics surrounding romantic relationships vary widely across the world. The way people approach, express, and navigate romantic feelings is heavily influenced by societal norms, cultural values, and historical contexts.

In traditional societies, such as those found in Sri Lanka and other parts of South Asia, there's a cultural tendency towards directness in expressing romantic interest, although it's important to note that individuals can vary in their approaches. In these societies, intentions are commonly made clear, and relationships frequently follow a more defined trajectory, often leading towards marriage or long-term commitment.

I've traveled a lot and have friends from many countries of distinct cultural backgrounds and can't help but notice that in many other cultures, people tend to be much more in touch with their bodies and connected to their emotions. They're also more open, direct, and desirous of connecting intimately, which feels more normal and natural. However, in the United States, we often engage in a weird dance that reflects our collective shame and neurosis.

Many of us are fearful of intimacy and create barriers that can make it extraordinarily difficult for us to be open and direct. Expressing our feelings or desires for another individual is often perceived as threatening and can come across as needy or desperate. The expectation is to hide our feelings, acting as if we don't care. Yet, we all have these unmet emotional needs that inevitably draw us into relationships.

Mainstream American dating culture, influenced by media, societal norms, and evolving values, often emphasizes the “chase” or the “game.” There's an underlying belief that showing too much interest too soon can come off as desperate or needy. This can lead to strategies like “playing hard to get” or waiting a certain amount of time before responding to messages.

The concept of playing one's cards right to maintain or increase perceived value is prevalent in dating in the United States. The idea is that by being less available or less upfront about one's feelings, one becomes more desirable. This dynamic can be emotionally draining and confusing for those who value directness and honesty.

The games and strategies often stem from a fear of vulnerability. Being direct about one's feelings opens one up to potential rejection or hurt. By playing it cool or being less direct, individuals might feel they're protecting themselves from potential pain.

Romantic comedies, TV shows, books, and even music often portray the “chase” as an essential, exciting part of romance. This portrayal can reinforce the idea that romantic games and strategies are normal, even desirable.

With the rise of dating apps and online platforms, the dynamics of dating have shifted. There's a paradox of choice; with so many potential partners available at the swipe of a finger, individuals might feel the need to play games to stand out or keep someone's interest.

The Tragic Cycle of Emotional Manipulation

When faced with their own internal turmoil, emotional scars, or low self-esteem, some attempt to compensate by manipulating the emotions of others, especially in the context of romantic relationships. These games can act as a temporary salve, providing short-lived boosts of confidence or feelings of control.

Driving these behaviors are unmet emotional needs that stem from past traumas, unfulfilled desires, or a history of being undervalued. Engaging in these games becomes a way to seek validation. For instance, if someone feels insecure about their worth, having multiple people show interest in them or being able to control a partner's emotions can provide a fleeting sense of worthiness.

Those who play emotional games often rely heavily on their physical appearance. This is, in part, because our society places a disproportionate value on physical beauty. As their beauty fades with time, and the attention and admiration that were once so plentiful diminishes, they are increasingly overlooked. Without addressing their emotional wounds or having cultivated deeper, intrinsic values, they are left adrift, feeling as though they no longer hold value or relevance.

Tragically, this path often results in a cycle of short-lived relationships and a lack of truly meaningful connections. While they might experience a momentary sense of power and gratification that comes with manipulating the emotions of those who find them attractive and desire connection, they miss out on the profound joy, understanding, mutual growth and the truly fulfilling and lasting bonds that come from genuine, deep relationships.

While exploiting the emotional vulnerability of others might provide them with an immediate sense of power and gratification, these fleeting moments of validation are often overshadowed by underlying feelings of guilt and remorse. It's a complex dynamic: on the surface, these games boost their diminishing self-esteem, but deep down, they recognize the injustice of manipulating and hurting individuals who genuinely seek intimacy.

These actions aren't mere spontaneous acts without consequence; they arise from a tangled web of unresolved emotions and internal conflicts. As they continue to inflict emotional pain, a cycle ensues. They may enjoy a momentary sense of control, but it often gives way to self-reproach and a further decline in self-worth.

This ongoing cycle not only damages their potential for authentic relationships, but also erodes their self-image. Trapped in this guilt-driven cycle, they perpetuate their destructive patterns, continually seeking redemption without knowing how to achieve it.

The real tragedy lies in the untapped potential many of these individuals have for deep connections and meaningful relationships. By addressing and healing their emotional wounds, they could relate to others in a more authentic manner, eliminating the need for manipulation and finding genuine love and self-appreciation.

Vampires of the Heart

People who play these hurtful emotional games can be likened to vampires: they feed off the emotions and attention of those who seek genuine connection. The fleeting validation resulting from their emotional predation leads them back into the cycle of manipulation.

This continuous emotional predation does more than just harm their victims. With every deceptive move and feigned emotion, they erode their own authenticity. Instead of becoming empowered, they often end up feeling more isolated and empty.

Ironically, by pushing genuine connections away, they deny themselves the very sustenance they crave. They remain perpetually hungry, always on the hunt for the next emotional “feed.”

Such individuals lose sight of the reality that genuine connections, built on love, trust, and mutual respect, offer the deepest nourishment. It's through such relationships that healing and growth become possible. Until they embrace this truth, they remain ensnared in a cycle of emotional predation, hurting both themselves and those they draw in.

The Power of Seduction

These heartbreakers possess a certain seductiveness. They skillfully manipulate the most fundamental human needs: the desires for love, affection, and genuine human connection. To their prey, they often project an illusion — the promise of love, lasting connection, and physical intimacy. This leads the unsuspecting to believe there is genuine potential, building their hopes and intensifying their pursuit.

And yet the heartbreaker's intentions are not genuine. They are adept at stringing their victims along, perpetuating a tantalizing dance of near connection. They may offer a taste of their affection, drop breadcrumbs, or even overwhelm their prey with a barrage of love and attention, only to strategically withdraw. This calculated game amplifies the emotions of those desiring a real connection, making them even more invested and obsessive in their pursuit. This intensification of feelings, fueled by the heartbreaker's manipulative push and pull, results in profound pain for the one genuinely seeking a connection.

The Dark Psychology of Emotional Manipulation in Relationships

Playing games with people's hearts is a form of manipulation that can be deeply damaging to its recipients. The underlying psychology of such Machiavellian behavior is complex, rooted in a range of personal, developmental, and societal factors. When individuals engage in this deceit, they often have a calculated intent to manipulate another person's feelings, perceptions, or actions for their own personal gain.

At the core of these manipulative behaviors is the need for power and control. For some, manipulating another person's emotions gives them a sense of dominance, especially if they feel powerless in other areas of their life.

Paradoxically, those who manipulate the emotional vulnerabilities—others' basic human needs for love and belonging—are deeply insecure. By controlling and manipulating others, they temporarily alleviate their own feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy. Seeing someone else in pain or distress can make them feel ‘better' or ‘superior' in comparison.

Those who torment the emotionally vulnerable by exploiting their need for love often have been victims of abuse or trauma. This doesn't in any way excuse their actions, but it provides a context. They take on the role of a perpetrator by reenacting the patterns of control and dominance they've experienced or observed, especially if they've never processed or healed from their trauma.

A defining characteristic of many of these heart breakers, especially those with narcissistic or sociopathic tendencies, is a lack of genuine empathy. They might intellectually understand another person's pain, but they don't genuinely feel or empathize with the damage they're causing. This detachment allows them to inflict grievous injury without experiencing remorse.

Engaging in manipulative games can be a defense mechanism against their own vulnerabilities. By always being the one in control, the manipulator avoids being in a position where they might get hurt. Deep down, manipulators of the heart fear genuine intimacy and connection. By engaging in games and manipulations, they keep their relationships at a superficial level, where they feel safe.

In some cultures or subcultures, manipulative behaviors, especially in romantic or sexual contexts, are normalized or even glamorized. Consider the “player” archetype, which is often portrayed as desirable or enviable in the media. Such societal reinforcement can embolden manipulators and make them feel their actions are justified.

For those of us on the receiving end, manipulation often leaves deep emotional and psychological scars. We doubt our self-worth, become cynical about relationships, and find it hard to trust.

So many of us take it personally when people mistreat us. It's essential for us to recognize that the manipulator's behavior is a reflection of their own issues and not a judgment of our value or worth. Seeking therapy or counseling can be beneficial in processing and healing from such experiences.

Chasing Shadows: How Dating Games Compromise Genuine Intimacy

The games and strategies in the dating arena, especially in cultures that emphasize the “chase,” profoundly affect genuine intimacy and the development of meaningful relationships.

When people play games, they tend to mask their true feelings, often leading to misunderstandings and missed opportunities. Trust is vital in any intimate relationship. However, these games instigate perpetual doubt, making it challenging to establish a foundation of trust. Over time, this doubt can erode trust, even when genuine feelings are eventually expressed.

Constantly trying to decipher or strategize wastes precious time and is incredibly draining. This exhaustion might cause us to become cynical and disillusioned with dating, leading us to withdraw from potential relationships before they even begin.

Games amplify insecurities. Tactics like delaying text responses or feigning interest can make someone feel undervalued or disposable. Such insincerity often reinforces feelings of unworthiness.

By prioritizing games over genuine interaction, we might miss out on potential partners who value authenticity and directness. If relationships are built on these games instead of genuine trust, they remain shallow, lacking resilience in the face of challenges.

The emotional maneuvering involved in games can make us skeptical about love, leaving us with the impression that everyone has hidden motives. Moreover, some individuals exploit these games to manipulate others, creating unhealthy dynamics of power and control in relationships.

Embracing games hinders our emotional growth. It denies us the enriching experience of genuine vulnerability and openness with another, complicating our ability to navigate deep, meaningful connections.

While some defend these games as integral to contemporary dating, their potential harm is undeniable. They can impede genuine intimacy, emotionally wound individuals, and foster unhealthy relationship patterns. For those yearning for profound, sincere connections, recognizing and moving beyond these games is essential.

From Manipulative Interactions to Genuine, Heartfelt Connections

The emotional wounding I carried from my childhood and adolescence made me especially vulnerable in my teens, twenties, and up into my thirties. The hurtful words and actions of some of the women to whom I formed attachments exacerbated past traumas while simultaneously creating additional emotional wounds.

Over the years, it became obvious to me that some cultures tend to have more of this toxic game-playing than others. While alcoholism and alcohol-related dysfunction were fairly prevalent among Native American reservations and communities, I found native people to be more open, honest, and direct in their expression. You knew if they disliked you, were neutral, or if they liked you as a friend or were romantically interested. Native American women generally didn't play the bullshit “hard to get” games. Native women who were interested did not hide it and, on numerous occasions, pursued me. I knew where I stood with them, and that gave me a sense of comfort and emotional security so I could feel at ease.

Part of me would have been content living among the native people for the remainder of my life, but I bailed out due to the alcohol-related problems. I wanted more than anything to have someone in my life that I could love and be loved by, but once I returned to the mainstream culture, I often felt that I wasn't on the right wavelength. I also suffered terribly as I couldn't play the games that were so prevalent in the dating arena.

Fortunately, I had a strong instinctual sense that led me to Sri Lanka. I found a directness similar to what I had experienced in my relationships with Native American women among the women I met and connected with in Sri Lanka. I encountered a similar openness and ease of connection while spending time in India and China. Part of it is the warmth many people in these cultures exude and their tendency to form deep and lasting emotional bonds similar to the way I form attachments. The bond I've shared with women I've been in relationships within these cultures, and even with platonic friends, feels very visceral.

Every nation, culture, and ethnicity comes with its own unique flavors of dysfunction. Being in a relationship with someone from Sri Lanka obviously has its own sets of challenges. One of the greatest drawbacks is that many South Asians lack any real sense of boundaries.

Interference from family members who may not approve of your relationship can create enormous problems. If your partner comes from a highly dysfunctional family, their dysfunction will invariably spill over into your own life. Conversely, if your partner comes from a good family, you will, in many instances, be well cared for and made to feel a part of the family.

As I progressed along my own journey of healing and became more resilient, I became less tolerant of hurtful and manipulative people and would eject them from my life. As I got to a healthier place, the dysfunctional people that had been a part of my life begin to feel uncomfortable in my presence. I felt disinterest and, in some instances, a strong aversion to them. It became apparent that we were naturally repelling each other.

I could see similar changes occurring in the people I worked with. As they progressed along their healing journeys, I could see them developing an internal strength and resilience. They began to see through the manipulation and lose patience with and outgrow abusive individuals, letting go of their unhealthy attachments.

A Game Plan for Healthier Relationships

You have the power to choose not to engage in hurtful games with other people's emotions. Standing in stark contrast to manipulative or selfish tactics that can have long-lasting damaging effects, a healthy approach to relationships emphasizes mutual respect, understanding, and genuine connection. Here's a comprehensive model for fostering healthy connections based on integrity:

Everyone has, at some point, suffered trauma and therefore carries deep emotional wounds. Exploiting these vulnerabilities for your own personal gain just makes you a shallow, self-serving asshole.

Stop it!

Do you like being lied to, cheated on, taken advantage of, deceived or abused in any other way?

Of course not!

Think about how you would feel if these things were done to you. And remember how you felt when these things have been done to you.

Now think about how you would like another person to relate to you and then relate to others accordingly.

If you're feeling neutral about someone if they don't interest you, then clearly communicate your feelings, rather than giving false hope or leading them on.

If you do find yourself interested in someone, I don't recommend that you immediately lay all your cards on the table. It takes time to get to know someone, to determine what you have in common and if you're truly a good match.

If you truly do like someone, you're romantically interested in them and desire to be more connected to them — and if you sense a receptivity on their part — then be open and honest about how you're feeling.


Self-awareness is about accessing and working constructively with your authentic emotional responses. So if you feel some kind of need to manipulate the vulnerabilities of another individual in an attempt to feel more powerful or feel better about yourself, you have some serious work to do.

Pay especially close attention any time you're on the receiving end of another person's attempts at manipulation. Notice how it's triggering you emotionally. Is it causing you to feel anxious or insecure? Do you find yourself trying to hold on to or control the other person, to control the outcome of the situation?

Any time you find yourself being triggered emotionally by someone and their behavior or if you find yourself being manipulated, breathe softly and deeply from the depths of any feelings or bodily sensations that arise. Letting go can be painful, but you can't make someone love you and you cannot fix damaged individuals who lack the capacity to love or be loved. Processing the sadness, grief, hurt and other emotions that arise will bring greater clarity and help you to let go.

If these patterns persist, then reach out to me. Working with me individually facilitates the healing of deep emotional wounds, dissolves unhealthy attachments, and allows you to finally let go, move on, and become more receptive to healthier and more nourishing connections.

Empathy and Understanding

Whenever you're interacting with someone in a romantic or any other context, put yourself in the other person's shoes by making a concerted effort to understand them, their feelings, perspectives, life experiences, and vulnerabilities. How can you demonstrate, through your words and actions, kindness, consideration, and empathy, interacting with them in a nurturing way that not only enables them to feel safe and cared for but also leads to a mutually beneficial connection?


Drop the pretenses. Being authentic is about expressing yourself openly and honestly without trying to mask your true feelings or putting on a facade to appease, impress, or influence others. Start by working to gain a deeper understanding of your own needs, beliefs, values and boundaries.

Clear and Honest Communication

Strive to communicate openly and honestly. Sharing your personal experiences and feelings can deepen the connection with others, making the relationship more meaningful and rewarding. Being open and honest while directly expressing your feelings rather than suppressing or hiding them helps to prevent misunderstandings and resentments.

Get curious about other people and the individual you're interacting with. Active listening means paying full attention to the other person without interrupting or formulating your response. Listen to understand, not just to reply.

Being Trustworthy

Learn to live from a place of integrity by honoring your commitments. In other words, do what you say and say what you do. When you commit to something, following through builds trust. Being reliable ensures that you're someone others can count on, be it in times of need or in everyday situations.

A Healthy Game Plan

Like a plant, relationships need consistent attention and care. A “healthy game plan” for relationships is about creating a genuine, deep connection based on mutual respect and understanding. By focusing on the principles of integrity, such as authenticity, empathy, and consistent care, your relationships can thrive and become sources of mutual joy, growth, and fulfillment.

©Copyright 2023 Ben Oofana. All Rights Reserved.

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