Our culture loves to glamorize playing games in relationships, and nothing proves this more than the new Netflix reality dating show “The Ultimatum.”
The premise of The Ultimatum is equal parts simple and chaotic. Six couples have been dating for over two years, and while one person wants to get married, the other is hesitant. The person who wants to get married issues a “we either get married or break up” ultimatum, but they have to participate in a three-week “trial marriage” with another contestant (and again with each other) before making their final decision.
Though many couples reach a stage in their relationship when they realize they need to fully commit or break up, not every couple goes on a reality show to play pretend spouse to other people to figure it out. Relationship experts are calling out the show for its toxicity, and viewers agree…but it also makes for an excellent trashy reality show (hey, silver lining here). It’s the perfect representation of why playing games has no place in any healthy relationship.
Social Media Glamorizes Playing Games
The Ultimatum is just one example among oh so many where playing games is thought to be the way to solve real relationship problems.
Social media, especially TikTok, encourages people to play games in the early stages of relationships. TikTok users like Ellie Waters have gone viral for promoting toxic dating advice, including cheating on your partner just in case they cheat on you, ghosting someone to see if they reach out to you, lying about hanging out with a guy to make another guy jealous, and other mind games that are manipulative, harmful, and just plain childish.
Dr. Bridianne O’Dea, a senior research fellow at the Black Dog Institute in Australia, believes that these viral TikToks can be harmful to teenagers because their brains are still developing. She said, “Young people are at a vulnerable stage of their development, where changes in the brain mean their ability to judge information is different to that of an adult.”
TikToks about cheating on your partner just in case they cheat on you have gone viral.
Dr. O’Dea added, “One of the reasons why this is problematic is because of ‘reinforcing spirals’... that when you think in a certain way, you then seek out information that reinforces that thinking. I have concerns about negative content in that simply by clicking on it, sharing, following, or commenting, the algorithm is going to be picking up on that and then start to expose you to similar content.”
The power of social media to influence how young people think about themselves and others isn’t something to dismiss. You can look at the TikTok trend of pretending to have Tourette’s or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which has been traced to exposure to these conditions on TikTok, as proof of social media’s ability to mold thoughts and behaviors.
Being led to believe that playing games is the way to manipulate someone into a relationship with you isn’t conducive to finding and maintaining a healthy relationship. In fact, I think playing games and hookup culture go hand-in-hand as damaging methods that are applauded by society as a way to enter into a relationship.
Whoever Cares Less Wins
Playing games and hooking up both boil down to the same rule, and that’s whoever cares less wins. There are two ways to look at the “benefits” of being the one who cares less. The first is a power play – if you care less than the other person, then you can neg them into doing more for you to prove that they do like you. It’s a straight-up manipulation tactic and mind game.
Or, you can ghost them without guilt. This approach to not caring about the other person’s feelings is at the root of the problem when it comes to playing games in relationships.
If you care less, then you can neg the other person into doing more for you to prove that they like you.
The other “benefit” of not caring isn’t as insidious, and it’s prevalent in hookup culture, especially when it comes to casual sex on college campuses. Sociologist Lisa Wade, author of American Culture: The New Culture of Sex On Campus, believes that college students "think relationship sex is taxing, while casual sex is easy” and that “caring isn’t allowed.”
So not caring about the other person, not “catching feelings” like it’s the flu, is really just a defense mechanism to protect your own heart and ego.
Play Stupid Games, Win Stupid Prizes
I once asked a close guy friend what he thought was the most toxic myth in dating culture, and he surprised me by saying that it’s the idea that guys like girls who are emotionally unstable. I’d argue that this is the leading cause behind why some women love to play games early on in relationships – they think it’s an easy way to attract a man. The truth is that this kind of behavior will only attract a man who is also manipulative and immature, and probably isn’t interested in a serious relationship. A man who wants a serious relationship is likely to be turned off by a woman who wants to play games.
Playing games isn’t going to attract a good man.
The harsh truth is that playing games isn’t going to attract a good man. Look at the couples on The Ultimatum. Some of the women were playing the ultimate game by trying to coerce their boyfriends into marriage, but it also felt like they wanted to get married just to be married, more than they wanted a loving husband and lifelong partner. This explains why they were willing to let their relationship play out for millions to see on Netflix, but also why the guys on the show were losers (I can’t be the only one underwhelmed by the cast).
In short, if you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes. If you play games, you’re not going to attract a good man. Romanticizing playing games in relationships sets women up to settle for crappy men, and nobody should have to settle.
From viral TikToks to shows like The Ultimatum, playing games in relationships is both normalized and glamorized. Like many toxic sides of dating culture, this stems from the normalization of not actually caring about the other person in the relationship. Our culture is sending the message to young women that this is normal, setting them up for a future of disappointment and unhealthy relationships.
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