Narcissists play games. To a narcissist, relationships are considered transactional, like buying and selling. The goal is to get what you want at the lowest price. It’s a self-centered, business mindset. Emotions don’t intrude.
In relationships, narcissists focus on their goals. For a male narcissist, that’s usually sex or to have a beautiful woman at his side. A female narcissist may be looking for material gifts, sex, acts of service, and/or an extravagant courtship. It’s important to understand a narcissist’s mind.
They see relationships as a means to get what they want, without concern for the feelings of the other person. Their only concern is what they can get out of it.
Relationships are used to enhance their ego and give them what they value, such as status, power, positive attention, esteem, and sex. You have to have something to offer to receive in return. They’re only motivated by that, and aren’t interested in you as a person or doing anything for you without some sort of payment. An exclusive commitment, caring, and intimacy that most of us seek in relationships are considered drawbacks to a narcissist, who likes to keep options open. Sex and intimacy are not usually linked. A relationship with a narcissist will never develop into an I-Thou relationship or even one based on love.
Types of Love
Plato described seven types of love: Eros is passionate, physical, romantic love; Philautia is self-love, including healthy self-esteem, hubris, and self-inflation; Ludus is affectionate, fun, and uncommitted love; Pragma is pragmatic love that focuses on long term compatibility and shared goals. Philia love is friendship; Storge is familial and parental love, based on familiarity and dependency; Agape is a deeply spiritual and unconditional love, including altruism and love for strangers, nature, and God.
Signs of Game-Playing
Research shows that narcissists’ style is Ludus love, and their objective is to enjoy uncommitted pleasure.  They’re playing a game, and winning is the goal. This strikes the perfect balance to get their needs met by multiple people, without many demands on them to be emotionally intimate or to meet other needs of their partner(s). (It should be noted that this research involves college students, who may outgrow these tendencies with greater maturity.)
Some examples of game-playing are:
- Being hard to reach or ghosting (disappearing)
- Going hot and cold; e.g. pursuing then distancing, such as slow to return calls or texts, or only sending short, impersonal texts
- Making promises they can’t or don’t keep
- Lying or being slippery and hard to pin down
- Being very seductive and moving fast in the beginning
- Refusing to discuss the relationship
- Flirting in front of you
- Hiding you from friends and family
- Expecting you to mind read (women do this more)
- Withholding feelings or sex
- Blaming you and playing the victim
- Not calling or texting first
Game-Playing and Love
Good social skills allow them to make a good initial first impression. They’re engaging, charming, and energetic, and research reveals that they possess emotional intelligence that helps them perceive, express, understand, and manage emotions. In fact, one study revealed that most people like narcissists when they first meet them. It was only after seven meetings that they started to see the narcissist’s darker side and changed their opinion. Many narcissists are adept at attracting and entertaining people. They’re not considered boring!
It’s easy to be seduced by generosity, expressions of love, flattery, sex, romance, and promises of commitment. This is how narcissists manipulate you to achieve their aims. They brag about themselves in order to be admired, loved, and gratified. Codependents with low self-esteem are easy targets. You might fall into the trap of idealizing them, sacrificing your needs, and little by little tolerating their increasingly self-centered and abusive behavior.
Narcissists can be persuasive lovers. Some practice love–bombing by overwhelming you with verbal, physical, and material expressions of love. While some remain single, narcissists often marry and develop Storge or Pragma love. But that may not stop them from seeking the thrill of continuing to play games with new conquests. They may not intentionally lie when confronted, but they’re skilled at deception. For example, a narcissist might tell you that you’re her boyfriend, but later you discover she has another “boyfriend,” and she’ll deny she ever lied. He will say he was working late at the office, but omit that he had a romantic dinner with his paramour. Narcissists who also have psychopathic traits are more nefarious and dangerous. They’re capable of gaslighting, exploitation, and criminal behavior.
Narcissists prioritize power over intimacy. (See Conquering Shame and Codependency.) They loathe vulnerability, which they consider weak. To maintain control, they avoid closeness and prefer dominance and superiority over others. Game-playing thus strikes the perfect balance to both get their needs met and keep their options open to flirt or date multiple partners.
When they lose interest and decide the game is over, it’s devastating to their ex, who can’t understand what happened and is still in love. Breakups are especially hard during the romantic phase when passions are strong. Being dropped after love-bombing can leave discarded partners in shock. They feel confused, crushed, and betrayed. If the relationship had continued, eventually they would have seen through the narcissist’s seductive veneer.
Narcissists can develop positive feelings toward their partner, but without deep love, they lack the motivation to maintain their façade and romance. That’s when fault-finding begins. They can become cold, critical, and angry, especially when they don’t get their way. Eventually, they must look elsewhere for their narcissistic supplies.
What to Do
There are steps you can take to protect yourself from becoming a victim of a narcissist’s games and changing the relationship dynamic. If it doesn’t improve, it may take courage to leave, but it’s more painful than being left.
- Knowledge is power. Not only information about narcissism, but learn about your date before you start fantasizing a romantic future and give away your heart. Pay attention to words and actions over time, not just flattery and words of love. (See “How to Spot a Narcissist.”) If you’re uneasy or suspicious, trust your gut.
- Walk away from a date who doesn’t respond, seems too busy, preoccupied, or interested in you.
- Talk about distancing behavior. Share your feelings, and find out what’s going on. You may learn that your date is seeing other people, just wants to have “fun,” or doesn’t want a commitment.
- Take control and confront bad behavior, such as unreliability, criticism, and rudeness. This requires the ability to trust your feelings, to be assertive, and to set boundaries. Confrontations aren’t ultimatums. Instead, learn to do it strategically. Follow the scripts in Dating, Loving, and Leaving a Narcissist: Essential Tools for Improving or Leaving Narcissistic and Abusive Relationships.
- Don’t be available 24/7. If you’re a man, restrain yourself, and don’t call or text multiple times a day in the beginning of a relationship. If you’re a woman, do not chase a man, period! Stop calling or texting him first. If he disappears, you can confront that, but the bottom line is that his behavior speaks volumes. Just move on. Remember, not only are there other fish in the sea, this one is toxic!
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© Darlene Lancer 2018 Campbell, W.K., Foster (April 2002) Narcissism and Commitment in Romantic Relationships: An Investment Model Analysis C.A. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28:4, 484-495
What Are Narcissist Games? – Learn How and Why Narcissists Play Games and How Not to Get Involved provided by Darlene Lancer, MFT, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Santa Monica, CA, and author of Codependency for Dummies