How psychological games can sabotage your relationship

Have you ever had the impression that the arguments with your partner seem to inevitably end in the same unproductive way? Have you ever wondered how arguments start and why they seem to follow the same pattern?

This may be because we have the tendency to take particular roles in the couple when it comes to certain kinds of interactions.

Learned behavior in arguments

When we enter certain arguments, they may trigger specific thoughts and feelings followed by behavior(s) dictated by our past experience. Our behavioral reaction follows cognitive paths that we have learnt throughout our lives and that have become automatic in adulthood.

A very common example is when, during an argument with your partner, it seems like you act like one of your parents and/or that he or she behaves like a child. If you both are hooked in your parent/child roles, the argument may end up badly, leaving you with a feeling of anger or powerlessness.

It’s not always easy to recognise the specific triggers and strategies involved in a couple’s dynamics and their games. Very often we have more of an intangible idea of what these dynamics are, because they usually happen outside of our awareness.

What are games and why do we play them?

Transactional analysis, a psychological model that focuses on human development, personality structure and interaction between individuals, has introduced the concept of “games”. A “game” is a series of transactions or exchanges between individuals that progress to a well-defined and predictable outcome.

Looking for an emotional pay off

A game usually hides an unconscious motivation for it to end dramatically, as it often leads to a negative pay-off. This pay-off provides us with a confirmation about our identity or enables us to avoid a situation or feelings we fear.

For example, a game’s hidden motive could be to avoid the responsibility and intimacy of an authentic relationship at a deeper level. Ultimately, a game may have an important role in keeping people around us who fulfill our specific needs.

How can you recognise when you are playing a game?

In 1968 Steve Karpman, M.D., conceived a psychological and social model of human interactions called the “drama triangle”. This model shows how specific roles are acted out destructively, leading people to conflict-playing games.

The “drama triangle” displays the connection between one’s responsibility and power during conflicts, and the destructive and shifting roles people play.

Game-playing roles

People will shift from one role to another in order to fulfill the pay-off of their game. These roles are:

 The “victim” role

You feel hopeless, helpless and powerless beyond what’s realistic. You often say or think, “Look what you make me do”.

When in this role, you will normally unconsciously seek for the “persecutor” to put you down.

 The “persecutor” role

You take up this role in order to avoid being a victim. You often say or think “See? Now I’ve got you!”. You think others are often wrong and often feel angry.

 The “rescuer” role

You have the tendency to help others, to rescue them even when you actually don’t want to do it, have not been asked for it, and are not asking for what you really want.

You have to help others because they can’t help themselves, so in a way you are discounting their skills.

How to stop playing games

All these roles are un-authentic, as you are actually responding to something that is related more to the past – your old learned strategies – instead of responding to what is really happening in the present and has to do with the person in front of you.

Increase your awareness

In order to have a game-free relationship as much as possible, one needs to be thinking, feeling and behaving in reaction to the reality of the here-and-now.

The key to gaining authentic contact in the relation is first of all to acquire awareness about your own “games”. “Is what I’m feeling in this very moment something that is instead connected to my past?” or “Am I blowing some aspects of the reality out of proportion while blocking out some other aspect?”

Be open to different perspectives

A second important step to take is to consider other options – that is, other reasons why your partner may or may not behave in a certain way.

You need to seek alternative ways to react consciously, stepping out of the game and of the victim/persecutor/rescuer roles.

– This article is also published on IamExpat at: