Serious Communication Games People Play

Serious Communication Games War words arguing yelling fighting anger AdobeStock_88959970 copyMost of us think we’re “fair” in how we interact with our spouse. We may see faults in how our spouse communicates and we might even admit that “we’re not always perfect.” But for the most part we think the communication problems we’re having is more their fault rather than ours. We don’t even recognize the serious communication games we “play” with each other.

The truth is we ALL have times when we don’t communicate as we should. And a lot of how we interact with each other can be seen by experts (and maybe even our spouse) as “game-playing.” By game-playing, we’re talking about communication traps we use that can throw our “opponent” off and give us. It’s what we perceive to be the winning edge in an argument. The motive: that way we can “win” and the other person (our spouse) will lose and hopefully see how wrong they were.

“Winners” in These Serious Communication Games

But how foolish that kind of reasoning can be! What makes us out to be the “winners” when in order to win, our spouse has to lose, feel defeated, and possibly feel humiliated? We ALL lose in that type of scenario! And the marriage itself especially becomes the loser!

As we examine the communication traps we’ll be listing below, we can see that there are so many ways we can sabotage our “discussions” with each other. Prayerfully, as we identify our own styles of game-playing we’ll better see how we behave in ways that our spouse could see as unfair. Prayerfully, we will work to eliminate it in our behavior.

As Jeff and Lora Helton in their book Authentic Marriages point out, “Couples tend to operate under a secret barter system. The key word in the system is ‘fair,’ the key concept is ‘keeping score,’ and the key phrase is ‘It’s my turn now.'”

The reality is that there is no such thing as perfect fairness —at least on a human level.

A lot of the ways we communicate comes from learned behavior we’ve picked up from others who have “modeled” it before us. Or it may result from behavior we’ve adapted out of a “survival mode” we’ve developed because of painful experiences. It can also come out of a personal perception of what’s fair and what isn’t —sometimes forgetting to take into consideration that our spouse may approach the problem differently because of a variant perception of “fairness.”

Let’s face it, whenever we try to gain leverage over our spouse in a manipulative way, there’s some type of “game playing” involved. And game playing ISN’T something that a spouse should do when serious communication is involved —in essence it’s childish and immature behavior!

As Believer’s in Christ, and as husbands and wives, we’re told to put away “childish behavior.” (See 1 Corinthians 13:11.) We’re also told to “speak the truth in love.”

The Helton’s go on to say:

“In Ephesians 4:15 Paul challenged Christians to live a life of ‘speaking the truth in love.’ Our tendency is to do well on 50% of that verse. Some of us have mastered ‘speaking the truth.’ We’re quick to point out anything negative that we see or perceive in our spouse. And we are willing to use any method (attacking, judging, etc.) to drive the point home.

Others of us are stuck at the “in love” part of confrontation. We’ve come to believe in complete acceptance and tolerance of any behavior. Often we become paralyzed with a fear of hurting someone’s feelings. And we withdraw into passivity and silence.

Speaking the truth in love combines both of these concepts. It allows us to confront sinful behavior without compromise, yet with absolute care and respect for the individual. It is a way of saying things in a way that the person can accept. When a couple takes the stance of living out Paul’s challenge of ‘speaking the truth in love’ to each other, the old models of judging and passivity must disappear.”

We need to be “on the alert” as we’re told in the Bible. We are to steer clear of that, which can cause damage in the way we relate to each other. If the enemy of our faith can get us to fight against each other —we’re not fighting him. And even more importantly, we’re hurting the Kingdom of God. We fail each other when we don’t communicate in a God-honoring way.

True Communication

True communication is supposed to compose of building a connection with each other —otherwise there is a breakdown in communication. As Dallas and Nancy Demmitt, in their terrific book, Can You Hear Me Now? say on this subject:

Let’s face it, the majority of our struggles in life —whether in a relationship with God, a spouse, a friend, or a colleague —center on a breakdown in communication. Unfortunately, many people have a wrong concept about the keys to communication.

The majority of people treat the process of communication like an airplane ride. They have a place they want to take us and they want to get us there quickly. Other people see communication as a subway. There is a preplanned route, unmovable guidelines, and a hidden agenda beneath the surface. In reality, good communication is more like a bridge.

Consider two people standing on opposite sides of a large canyon without a bridge to connect them. They have no way to reach one another. There is no way to communicate or collaborate or touch each other’s lives. Now insert a bridge between them. With the bridge in place, each person can walk across to see the world from a different perspective. They can travel freely back and forth to broaden their viewpoint and enrich their experience. Now they can pool resources and unite around common goals.

But not just any bridge will do. People need a bridge they can trust —a strong, safe structure that will support them and the ones they love in good times and bad.

Building Communication Bridges

It’s all about building a good bridge to communication. And then it’s about tearing down whatever obstructs the way of making that happen. This includes “pro-actively” learning all we need to so that we are truly eliminating “childish behavior” on our part. It is a way of “speaking the truth in love.”

With this in mind we want to provide the following “lists” that come from various resources. You’ll need to find a way to obtain the resources for further explanation on how to combat the type of game playing that each author describes.

We pray that this will motivate you to DO something about your own behavior. It is our hope you will “put away childish things” that hurt your marriage. That is our prayer for you … and for us. We pray that together, we’ll make our marriages the best they can be for the testimony of, our awesome God.

We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5 NASB)

All of us entered marriage with deeply entrenched patterns of thinking programmed in us since childhood. (David and Teresa Ferguson)

Lists of Serious Communication Games:

The following are the lists of various “games” people play with each other. Each author has a different “spin” on them, but together they give you a general idea that could be helpful:

The following is edited from:
INTIMATE ENCOUNTERS (No longer in print)
-By David and Teresa Ferguson

Listed below are 6 of the most common unhealthy thinking patterns that contribute to emotional pain. We all seem to fall victim to one of more of these patterns from time-to-time:

  • Personalizing
  • Magnifying
  • Over-generalizing
  • Emotional Reasoning
  • Polarizing/Selective Abstraction
  • Minimizing

How do we defeat unhealthy thought patterns? Before you can begin to correct unhealthy thought patterns, you must clearly identify them.

Let’s take a closer look at them individually:

PERSONALIZING —Life Events Are Personal Rejections and Attacks:

It’s taking external events as personal rejections and attacks. It’s overestimating the extent an event is related to him or her.

MAGNIFYING —Making Mountains Out of Molehills:

It’s taking life’s events and exaggerating them until everything seems like a catastrophe. We take nickel and dime incidents and turn them into million dollar crises.

OVERGENERALIZING —History Always Repeats Itself:

Generalizing is relying on past events to predict the future —casting doubts on your adequacy. It is preventing you from trusting others or yourself. They hold on to past hurts, failures, and rejections. And they recite them as evidence for their gloomy attitude toward the future. They figure, “Why try? The past will just repeat itself.”

EMOTIONAL REASONING —Interpreting Feelings as Facts:

Emotional reasoning is confusing feelings with facts. Regardless of the evidence to the contrary, the person’s convinced that if they felt it, it must be so. What they feel, they think is true—despite what anyone else says to the contrary.

POLARIZING —Seeing Everything as Black or White:

“Polarizing” is a perfectionistic thinking pattern. It views life as all-or-nothing, good-or-bad, and/or black-or-white. They classify events as right or wrong, good or bad. And they judge their performance (or their spouse’s) on the basis of their own impossible standards.

SELECTIVE ABSTRACTION (An off shoot of Polarizing) Missing the Forest for the Trees:

Selective Abstraction is focusing so intently on a few negative traits that the positive ones are overlooked. It’s focusing on what’s wrong rather than on what’s right —spending precious time and energy fussing over a few minor problems instead of investing their energies on positive solutions.

MINIMIZING —It Really Doesn’t Matter:

“Minimizing” is denying or discounting any feelings associated with significant events of one’s life. They shut down their emotions and shrug their shoulders over life’s significant hurts and events. It can have a chilling effect on marriages.

— ALSO —

The following is edited from:
–By Dr. Kevin Leman
Published by NavPress


Learn to fight fair. Refrain from:

UNIVERSALIZING: Making an unwarranted leap from a specific situation to a vast generalization. (This often makes use of “always” and “never.”)

CHARACTER KILLING: Switching from the issues of the conflict to making a personal attack on your spouse. (This may include sarcasm for a more devastating effect.)

CLOUD COVERING: Making a vague, foggy accusation instead of being detailed and specific about the complaint. (Again, sarcasm helps!)

UPPING THE ANTE: Instead of responding to the hurt or anger of your spouse, you just play “tit-for-tat” by citing a worse case that’s been done to you.

SCATTER BOMBING: Overwhelming your spouse with a barrage of faults and misdeeds that land all over the map. Dropping into the conversation a huge list of sins (usually unrelated) —including everything and the kitchen sink!

MOTH BALLING: Putting an old grievance in storage —for years or decades —and bringing it out at just the right time to hurt your spouse.

SPITTING IN YOUR SOUP: Using passive-aggressive comments to lay the guilt on the other party. Often involves sarcasm.

— PLUS —

The following comes from an article titled:

-By Harold and Bette Gillogly

The Sexual Approach/Avoidance Game:

One of you has a greater sex drive than the other. Generally men have a higher sex drive than women, but that’s not always the case. The game starts when the spouse who has the higher sex drive starts believing he or she has to ask or hint for sex 6 or 7 times in order to get it once.

You feel like you have to go through this pattern, this game, in order to get sex one time. The problem with this is every time you hint, every time you ask, is seen as a full-blown approach to your mate with the lower sex drive. So what it looks like to your mate is approach, approach, approach, approach …that can be very intimidating.

If I were to run as fast as I can at you, would you want to lean forward to catch me? Or would you step back out of the way so you wouldn’t get run over? You’d step back out of the way, right? That’s called self-protection. That’s what happens with the mate who has the lower sex drive. She or he will back off from you out of self-protection and start avoiding sex altogether. If you are the “Approacher” in the Approach/Avoidance game, you are actually lowering your mate’s sex drive. That’s not what you want. You both have to talk about this. Together you have to confess you are playing this game.

Approacher/Avoidee “Game”

If you are playing the game, you must decide together what you are going to do about it. That is because it takes both of you to stop it. If you’re the “Approacher,” you’ve got to back off lovingly without even subtly trying to lay guilt on your mate. If you lay guilt, you’ll lower your mate’s sex drive. You’ll shoot yourself in the foot. Back off lovingly.

If you are the “Avoidee,” then you have a responsibility here too. Talk about how you have been playing this game and together decide that it’s going to stop. As the “Avoidee,” you must be honest with your mate and with yourself. You can now stop avoiding sex with your mate, because he (or she) is going to stop approaching you so much. Start learning to talk together about your sexual desires. Learn how to mutually give to one another. Think about loving and giving to your mate, not about taking.

We’ve had “Approachers” complain to us, “I quit approaching last week and it’s not fixed yet!” We have to ask, “How long have you played the game?” You see, if you’ve played this game for years and years, don’t expect that in a week or two you’re going to turn things around and everything is going to be hunky-dory again. It’s going to take time and effort, but if you work on this together, you can stop playing this game.

— ALSO —

To learn more on this subject of how communication games can hurt your marriage, go to the web site to read:


The following are a few other ways of contaminating a relationship but also, solutions to possibly help to deal with them. They are written by Paul Byerly and are posted on the web site Even though they are written from the man’s standpoint in dealing with a wife, the reverse situation applies as well —a wife dealing with an angry husband. Please read:


Another unhealthy thinking pattern is:


This involves expecting your spouse to “know instinctively” what you expect.

A few insights on this expectation:

  • “Anger can be generated by mind reading. In your mind you create your own reasons for why your spouse did what he or she did and you project those reasons onto him.” (Dr. Norman Wright)
  • “Keep in mind that hinting, pouting, and sighing won’t get the desired results. You need to ask clearly.” (Sandra Aldrich)
  • “Mind reading should not be your expected form of communication.” (Sandra Aldrich)
  • “Families are often spared heartache when the husband isn’t required to read his wife’s mind [and the same can be applied in reverse if the husband is the one who is playing this game.” (Sandra Aldrich)

In closing:

I’d like to point out that the lists above are unhealthy games that many spouses play. They don’t realize the destruction they are causing. The purpose of this article is just to point out some of these manipulative games. This way you are aware of them. The next step is to properly deal with, and eliminate them from going on in your relationship. We have other articles in the Communication topics such as Communication and Conflict and Communication Tools, which you can use as a starting point to eliminate unhealthy game playing. There are also resources listed, which we recommend to help even further.

If the game-playing goes down into a level of deep control and abuse, we recommend you read through the Abuse in Marriage topic. We hope this will help you.

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (Romans 15:5-6)

Cindy Wright of Marriage Missions International wrote this article.

If you have additional tips you can share to help others, please “Join the Discussion” by adding your comments below.

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2 responses to “Serious Communication Games People Play

  1. (USA)  My husband and I do almost all of these things. Too bad there’s no information on how to stop. Just identifying the problem only validates that we’re both toxic to each other; and should just stop before we completely ruin these children’s ideas about what marriage is supposed to be like.

  2. THIS is all my ex (husband). We claimed to be married and lived married to ourselves and hearts amd friend and family. This is us to the “T”! My question is how do I communicate this to someone who has NO communication with me, not even for the children? He has left me with an 18 month and 5 month at home and I’m on my own now. I feel I have no direction, not even one msg to me. Completely cut me off the face of the earth. My good spirit says pray and be patient and wait on the Lord, the bad spirit says hate him. It’s a battle. Any advice and all is welcomed for input. God bless! Thanks!!!