Playing hard to get — delivering, then withholding, affection and attention — has plenty of advocates and critics. But it’s usually discussed in terms of couples during the courtship stage, not after they’re married. The experts we talked to say playing hard to get can at times lead to growth or spice in a relationship. But they also caution to use this tactic carefully, if at all — because it can easily backfire.
In any relationship, manipulation is not advised. But sometimes, the urge to play hard to get might signal something lacking or needed in a relationship. And sometimes, it might even be helpful to pull back.
Couples therapist Becky Whetstone, based in Little Rock, Ark., bristled at the idea of someone playing hard to get. Often, she said, she sees struggling relationships where people act childish — and playing hard to get qualifies.
“The No. 1 cause of divorce is immaturity,” Whetstone said. “Most people that I see are conducting themselves at an emotional maturity level of between 4 years old and 15.”
This attitude can manifest in a variety of unhealthy ways, she said: “You sit there and say to yourself, ‘How can I get my husband to come in and be close to me? Well, I’m going to have a tantrum.’ Or, ‘I’m going to have a pity party for myself.’ Or, ‘I’m going to go have drinks with someone from work.’”
Pscyhotherapist Ken Page, author of “Deeper Dating: How to Drop the Games of Seduction and Discover the Power of Intimacy,” agrees. Playing hard to get, he said, can be a “pretty primitive response. … You’re saying, ‘I’m feeling insecure, so let me spark some insecurity in my partner.’”
Plus, it can often come off as needy, which is the opposite of what people intend.
IMPETUS FOR REFLECTION
However, Page said, the fact that you are considering playing hard to get is worth exploring.
“If you’re thinking, ‘Should I be playing hard to get?’ you need to ask yourself why are you asking that question,” Page said. Perhaps you’re feeling insecure, or the relationship has lost some passion. Maybe distance has grown.
“You want to generate some excitement and insecurity on the part of your partner,” Page said, and understanding the reason for that is important.
Sometimes, it may come from a sense that something needs to change. For example, maybe you’re feeling like you’re pulling more weight in the relationship, or giving up too much sense of self to get your partner’s attention. In that case, Page said, it might be the right time “to pull back and do a reset. Ask yourself what you need to do to reclaim your personal sense of balance, your own sense of happiness.”
The result, he explained, can create a positive sense of space in the relationship.
“And that space can be like oxygen for intimacy,” he said. “It allows the other person a sense of breathing room and can rejuvenate their sense of appreciation.”
That said, Page said to be sure you aren’t be acting out of bitterness or anger. Playing hard to get can often have the reverse effect on a partner: decreasing trust and increasing distance. Hardly the stuff of building a stronger relationship.
A BETTER APPROACH
If you sense that you and your partner are distancing yourselves from each other, Page suggested a different tack.
“A much, much smarter thing to do is try to understand what (is creating) that distance,” he said – and communicating that to your partner.
In this way, the urge to play hard to get — handled appropriately — might signal things that can improve.
“The solution,” he explained, “is to … create healing.”
WHEN IT WORKS
However, there is one place where playing hard to get might benefit a relationship: the bedroom. Jessica O’Reilly, author of “The New Sex Bible: The New Guide to Sexual Love,” said it can spice up a sex life.
“I think it’s a great idea,” she said, “if it becomes a component of your role play and your sexual routine.”
What this means, she explained, is that both parties consent to roles played, of pursuer and pursued.
Key to this approach is that a relationship would, ideally, be a secure one for both partners. So some of the things that tarnish playing hard to get — for example, preying on the other’s insecurity — become less of an issue.
“You’re already supporting one another and helping each other with insecurities, so this isn’t about creating real insecurity,” she said.
This approach offers a balance between the known and the unknown — for example, you love and commit to each other. But it also offers a bit of fantasy in a secure couple’s sexual relationship.
“Fabrication, challenge and uncertainty makes it fun and erotic,” O’Reilly said. “It makes things less predictable.”
If you’d like to introduce this approach into your sex life, she suggests verbalizing in some way. In other words, pulling away without explaining what you’re doing is not the best route.
“I don’t think you have to have a conversation about logistics,” she said. “That conversation would be, ‘How would you feel if you had to …?’”
And gauge how your partner feels. Timing is important.
For example, O’Reilly said, “If I had a rough day at work, or we’ve recently had a fight that was related to jealousy or insecurity or fears around infidelity, this might not be the best time.”