Setting boundaries vs. playing games

No one likes it when someone they are dating “plays games,” which is a nebulous description of someone trying to manipulate the other. (We’re not talking Monopoly, Bridge, or tennis here!) But very few people can articulate what constitutes a game. (However, it is commonly agreed that if an “attached,” [e.g., non-single] person acts as if they are unattached, s/he is “playing games.” Or if when asked “are you seeing someone else?” they respond, “no,” meaning “not at this very exact moment as I’m with you and she’s at home.”)

Some people consider arbitrary rules to be game playing. For example, women who won’t call men under any circumstance, or pay for a meal, or have an x-dates-before-sex criteria.

So when does setting boundaries cross the line to becoming a game? For example, although I understand why men offer me their phone number before I offer mine, I prefer to have him make the first move. So I respond with my number and invite him to call. My experience is that if I give him my number and he doesn’t call, he’s not that interested or doesn’t have the initiative I’m looking for. If I call him first, I never get a sense for either of these.

I also don’t like to be on the phone after 10:00 especially for the first few calls. For example, an initial call from a new man came in at 7:30 p.m. No problem. We chatted for 30 minutes, then he said he needed to do a quick errand and would call back absolutely no later than 9:00. No problem.

So when his call came in at 10:00, I sent it directly to voice mail. Could I have answered? Sure. But, 1) he was an hour later than he’d promised, which is not a good sign and 2) 10:00 on a work night is too late unless one knows the other is a night owl or has an already established relationship. If I’d answered, I’d be sending the signal that he doesn’t have to honor his promises and I’ll accept his calls whenever he dials. Nope. Not going there.

Is that playing games? Some would consider it so. Others would say I was setting a boundary of honoring my own needs first. Is this selfish? I don’t think so. If you bend your boundaries at the beginning of a relationship, a man will never learn to honor the ones that are important to you.

Does this mean you should be rigid? Not necessarily. But I’ve found when I waive my own boundaries, I’m in for a heap of trouble. He never believes any of my stated boundaries because I didn’t stand up for them (and for what I wanted/needed).

So what do you think is a “game” vs. a boundary? Have you ever purposefully played games in midlife dating? What did you do and why? What boundaries have you bent and what were the results? What haven’t you waived and are glad you didn’t?


For other topics to consider when you begin dating, get your copy for you (or someone you love!), of Dipping Your Toe in the Dating Pool: Dive In Without Belly Flopping.


25 responses to “Setting boundaries vs. playing games”

  1. SimplyStac Avatar

    Really loved this! What I should’ve done before, but will do now. I think a “game” is deliberately setting out to do some kind of wrong, not nice thing. Intentionally keeping the truth, hiding parts that you should share, sneaking…etc. Boundaries are good because without them, you are inviting someone and giving someone permission to play the game. Smart women (and men, too) will set and stick by boundaries. Thanks for that food for thought…

  2. Mitsy Avatar

    I don’t think that you are game playing when you expect a new interest to call you before 10:00 pm. I’m a late night owl myself but realize most people who don’t work 2nd jobs are not in that category and a lot of people want to go to bed by 10:00 or 10:30 (esp. on a week night). I think the guy should have had a very good explanation for waiting that long to call. Either he had something urgent come up and should have left a message to that effect or simply called the next day. On the other hand, if he was not able to call back before 10:00 pm & didn’t call back that night, I would be left thinking that he wasn’t that interested in resuming the conversation. I think that particular situation could go either way. Did you tell him that you didn’t usually answer calls after 10:00? That would make a huge difference if he did this after knowing you didn’t want to talk after that time.

  3. Lisa Avatar

    I don’t think it was game playing either, but I agree with Mitsy that maybe something really unexpected delayed him in his errand. If he had not called fearing it was too late, I would have been mad that he had not called back when he said he would! I probably would have answered and just seen what the deal was and then go from there. Cut him one break, but you end up doing that over and over and all you have is shreds. It’s hard to know. What was the story? How did it end up?

    I have always been mystified what men mean when they say no game playing in their profiles. It often seems that the profiles of guys who write this have a rather bitter/angry edge to them overall, so it makes me wonder about them. There should be a tone checker on these sites! Some of the men seem clueless as to how they are coming across.

  4. Yvette Francino Avatar

    Very interesting post and coincidental, since I’ve just been exploring this question myself! So many of the online dating profiles say stuff like “No game-players, please” and I’ve always wondered exactly what was considered a “game” in dating. The truth is I absolutely love games (ie. board games or anything playful!) And I think even flirting is a bit of a game.

    What I *think* is meant by “no game playing” is dishonesty. As you mentioned… someone who says they’re free when they aren’t.
    There are also people who will wait a certain number of days before calling, for example. Or maybe they will multi-date. Some people may consider these “games.” I think if you’re being up-front about where you’re at, any of these things is fine. And I certainly think it’s appropriate to set boundaries. In my book, the biggest thing is honesty. As long as I have that, I say, “play on!”

    As for the phone call, I think it was totally appropriate to let it go to voicemail, though I would just follow up with an email or when you talk to him tell him that 10pm is a little late for you. I think nicely letting him know why you didn’t pick up will just reinforce your boundaries in a respectful way.

  5. Mark Avatar

    Some men have the rather unfounded (IMO) fear that women are going to use them for free dinners and movies. I think you get some guys who are not very successful at dating so they end up with a string of one or two date relationships and they feel a bit used. Hence, the tone issues you describe.

  6. Lisa Avatar

    I agree that honesty is the best policy and that is probably what is meant by game playing–the lack of honesty. I think it is the poofer men who are game players. I think all these men need to hook up with the movie-going moochers and form a poofers and moochers dating site.

    I have sadly only lied once to a person I met on He was one of those “what the heck” coffee “dates” when you feel like you don’t really know a lot about the person, but they seem a little bit interesting, so you just meet up and see.

    He showed up late which I find very annoying. He was a very tall/large person and he immediately hovered over me and grabbed my hand in his two hands and would not let go. I felt assaulted and my initial response was to pull it away. He then began perseverating on the interaction asking me over and over, “What’s the matter with a handshake? ” Finally, I had to say, “Drop it!” After a few awkward comments, he began grilling me as to why I had never been married. At this point, I knew there was no way I would ever see him again, and he had offended and annoyed me so much and I felt there was no way he would let the topic drop, so I lied and said I had lived with someone for many years and he had recently died. I felt really bad that I had lied, but I told myself he was so offensive that it didn’t really matter since I would never see him again. Is there ever justification for lying like that to someone you will never see again?

    The evening ended when he spilled an entire cup of coffee all over me. Of course it was an accident (perhaps?), but this man came to be known in my mind as Power Paw.

  7. BRENDA Avatar

    I totally agree with DG – it is good to establish your personal boundaries in the beginning – I have had men ask for my telephone number, then proceed to start texting me as opposed to picking up the phone to get to know me. I don’t respond to texts other than to say that I am looking forward to speaking to him on the telephone. One clueless man apparently did not know what that meant, because he then got online a few weeks later to email me to ask where I went. I responded by email “You asked for my number because you said you were going to call, then you set about texting me, now you are emailing me. I look forward to speaking to you by telephone” – and he never called!

    Yes, and I definitely will not speak to a man calling for the first time past 9:30 pm………….

  8. Yvette Francino Avatar

    This post inspired me to write my own post about game-playing:

    In fact, seeing as it’s the start of a new month, I think I’m going to have to come up with some monthly game having to do with love, relationships, or dating… I will be hoping to come up with something today!

  9. katie Avatar

    And now for a different perspective on game-playing, here’s a syndicated author who feels that it is a POSITIVE trait! Do you agree?

  10. katie Avatar

    I dislike having to wait a whole day to respond to a suitor’s email, just to not appear desperate. I’m a spontaneous person and like to fire off emails when I feel like it, instead of when the “rules” say is okay. Aren’t we all playing some kind of game when there are unwritten rules?

    On a recent first date I decided to assiduously avoid being flirtatious, as I didn’t want to lead the man on. I dressed conservatively, avoided too much eye contact, etc. It backfired! It made me more of a challenge to him, and now he wants a second date. Let’s face it: dating IS a game, or a dance, or a carefully-scripted drama.

  11. Richard Avatar

    “So when does setting boundaries cross the line to becoming a game?”

    Boundaries are something you setup for yourself in order to adhere to a set of morals or external needs. For instance, your example of not answering the phone after 10:00 pm because you need your sleep for work the next morning.

    Then there is playing the relationship game vs. playing games. Playing the relationship game is how two people get to know each other. Artificial rules, like waiting a few hours to respond to an e-mail (not wanting to appear desperate, etc.), are innocuous rules for people who are not good at reading others and seeing the impression they giving (I’m in that camp).

    Early in a relationship we exchange instant messaging names. I was the first to say “hi” in the morning when I saw her come online. Then, I started wondering, if I was being too oppressive (did she want that much contact)? So, for a few days, I let her make the first move. That gave me the confidence to know that we were on the same page, and enjoyed a daily “hello”.

    Playing games is when you purposely do something in order to elicit a response. That is manipulative. For instance, the lady is purposely 1 hour late for a date in order to test how devoted he is to her. That is rude and disrespectful.

    Then there is the grey area. I saw him last week, and he asked me out again this week. I should say “I’m busy” so he thinks he has competition for my attention. Is that playing the relationship game, or being manipulative?

  12. Ronnie Ann Ryan - The Dating Coach Avatar

    DG – your post started a great conversation! As a dating coach and past dater myself, I can tell you that boundaries are crucila to yrou self-esteem. In fact boundaries are importnat in all areas of life, not just dating. Growing up my mom was extremely demanding – so I learned early on about the self-preserving power of boundaries. They are totally for you and not against anyone else.

    I was fascinated by some of the earlier comments – what if the guy couldn’t make the call for some reason? That’s the thing about boundries – its not about him.

    Don’t make excuses for men. After all, DG could call him back the next day so the conversation can continue. Nothing wrong with that. She does what is right for her and can still continue getting to know him. Total availability isn’t attractive anyway. Human nature wants what is hard to get versus served up on that silver platter. That is the law of the jungle and dating too.

  13. Wayne Avatar

    I think consistency is the key to everything, when someone is inconsistent it feels like a game. I think everyone has their own personal boundaries and “rules” that could feel like games to other people, but if you are consistent then at least they are not games…

  14. Dating Goddess Avatar

    Great conversation and comments!

    Here’s the next piece of the saga. He called again the other night, around 7:30. I had some things I wanted to get done, so called him back at 9:00. He said, “May I call you back in 30 minutes? What time is too late to call?” I said, “I try to close things up around 10:00.” He said he’d call me back in half hour.

    At 9:58 he called. I chatted for a few minutes, then said I needed to get to bed. He said, “Can I ask you one last question?” “Sure.” He did, I answered. Ten minutes later, he said, “Can I ask you one more question.” “OK, but that’s it.”

    So, it was my bad that I kept allowing him to keep me on the phone. He wasn’t odious and I was having a good time, but I did feel a bit manipulated that he wasn’t honoring what I said was important to me. I’ve found that men who keep pressing what you say are your limits are manipulative and/or controlling and/or self-absorbed (focusing on what THEY want, not what you want).

    I was conscious of this at the time. Again, we were having a good conversation, but when he didn’t honor my boundaries it left me feeling I’d constantly be having to fight for my priorities. If someone said, “I need to get to bed as I have an early-morning meeting,” I would say, “No problem. I look forward to continuing our conversation in the near future.” Then I’m honoring their boundaries while leaving the door open for continuing.

  15. Laurel Avatar

    There are real boundaries – something that is true for the person setting it, and preferences stated as boundaries – how they wish other people would behave & claim is necessary. I learned how to tell the difference when I worked in software development and many unrealistic schedules were presented as true schedules, in the hopes of making us work faster.

    So far the method of telling the difference is 100% accurate. It is: Does the person change their behavior to hold the boundary? If not, the boundary was a preference. Maybe manipulative, maybe just an honest preference.

    So on the “1 more question” example, I’d say the 10pm phone limit was not a boundary on that particular evening. It was a preference. But the acting preference was continuing the conversation, or preferring not to appear rude. Or something else. I’d say the preference of the moment is always what is ocurring in the moment.

    The thing I’ve found about my boundaries is that they just are. When they are about me, they don’t take a lot of effort to hold. If I state a “boundary” in order to get behavior from another – that’s manipulation. Boundaries are self-evident by my actions. Of course, it’s good communication to explain them to the other person, if they are interested.

  16. Richard Avatar

    It reminds me of when I was dating in college. I was so infatuated with the girl that I would do anything to be/chat with her longer. I never thought of it as manipulative, controlling, or self-absorbed. In hind sight, I guess I was self-absorbed, in as much as I was only thinking about my desire to spend more time with her. Kids will do anything.

    This gets to the age old question of “When does ‘No’ mean ‘Yes’”? Is the girl saying “no” because she should, but really wants the guy to stay? Is it a game where the lady sets the boundary (so she appears to be aloof), and it is the guy’s role to push it (to show that he is pursuing her)? If the guy wins, and she goes past your boundary, then he has affirmation that she is interested in him.

    In my old age, I would be more respectful of her needs. If I understand her need (needs x hours of sleep to function the next day), I would respect that. That said, I doubt I would stop myself from trying to get an extra 10 minutes with you. On the flip side, I remember times when I said “I should leave so you can get your sleep”, and it would be another hour before I left.

  17. Ellen Avatar

    There’s a difference between flirtation and interest vs. manipulation and conniving. The reality is that what one person thinks is acceptable may not be for another, so an honest conversation when issues come up is the best way. I know that confrontation is tough for most of us, but there’s nothing wrong with stating the truth kindly, like telling the guy that you and he are just not a match and you are moving on, without the need to explain the reasons. Maybe dating is all a game, as many of my women friends really do want a night or dinner out and the many of the guys really do just want a sexual partner and so they all flirt or woo in order to get what they want. I like to think of someone I date as a friend, which allows me to just show us and be myself, like I would with a friend. It has to be possible to be real and honest and still enjoy the thrill of the flirtation and infatuation. Is it?

  18. Mitsy Avatar

    Maybe I’m in the minority, but I think it was rude of the guy to call at 9:58. I mean since Goddess stated that she needed to get to bed by 10:00 or was winding down by then, then it’s hard for me to understand a guy calling at the very last minute. To me, this is sort of a red flag given that he didn’t make the best impression the time before when he called so late after saying he’d call back in a half-hour. At the very least, his time management skills are horrible or he is unable to listen to what others are saying.

    I think it’s great that the conversation went well, but I would be a bit miffed with him calling so late after stating the “boundary” of 10:00 p.m. which he did not honor.

  19. Anna Avatar

    I think we all tend to over analyze things a bit and discussions on “boundaries” can become technical. Boundaries can be interpreted in many ways. The issue of game-playing is another topic. But life is always a game and there is no getting around the games, whether its at work, at home with the kids or dating. We all “play games” trying to figure out what will work best, usually for us! Thats not to say it is always unhealthy. If DG had not been enjoying the conversation, she would have cut the guy off and thought how rude of him to keep asking questions. As she did enjoy the conversation, she relaxed a little and kept the conversation going. For his part, he sensed this and so pressed for more time with her, hence the next question, because he too was enjoying the conversation. This really is a healthy game-playing. Its what we humans do when we are trying to assess the situation and make our next move in the huge chess game. I agree that when dishonesty and deliberate manipulation enter the picture, now the game-playing becomes unhealthy.

  20. Mark Avatar

    Here’s an example of gameplaying that isn’t good or bad but does make me wonder: If a person, man or woman, feels like talking to someone else but refuses to call because it’s too soon or he or she feels the other person should call, that’s playing games.

    If your genuine feeling is a desire to talk to this person, why not pick up the phone and dial? Is there any negative answer that doesn’t involve trying to manipulate or put forth an image?

    I will tell you as a man that one of the happiest moments I had was the day after a first date with a woman she called me to chat and then invited me to a trivia night. I thought, hey, she likes me! She called me and asked me to do something. I really appreciated that.

  21. Mitsy Avatar

    I know we can all over-analyze things and see nothing wrong with a woman calling a guy first. What troubles me is the fact that Goddess’ guy did not honor her request to call earlier in the evening. Waiting until almost 10 p.m. didn’t make much sense to me. Then again, a lot of things that guys do don’t make much sense. If he was truly interested, WHY didn’t he call sooner. He did this to her twice, so that is my question here.

  22. Mark Avatar

    Yes, his calling that late made no sense. If it had been me, I would have apologized and kept the call short. It does make you wonder if he was playing some kind of game to gauge her interest. “I’ll call her two minutes before she will no longer take my call and see if she likes me well enough to talk at length.”

    There are many things that don’t make sense. I’ve never understood why at a first meeting someone will run down her last boyfriend/husband. There may be a time and place to go into detail about past relationship history, but a first meeting over coffee isn’t it.

    (And my all-time worst first meeting was with a woman who pulled out of her purse three bottles of beer and a marijuana pipe and then insisted on showing me how hairy her legs were because she had given up shaving. Christ….)

  23. Julie Avatar

    Reading all the posts made me wonder if the guy is needy… Too needy translates in to ‘not having it to give’ to someone else. Too busy trying to fill their need?

  24. Julie Avatar

    Sorry – I should have responded to Mitsy’s post in my previous one… I have found that someone people are very relaxed about this sort of thing… ‘words’ (what they actually say or what someone else says to them) are not as powerful for those people. So for those folks, saying they’ll call at a certain time should be taken as an approximate…. and if you did the same to them, it would roll off their backs. I have friends who are both ways – one friend i have – we make a plan/what we say to each other means something to both of us. We follow through more consistantly.

    I have another friend that this same thing is not a sensitivity for her. She changes plans more easily and if I do it to her, it just doesn’t bother her much.
    I prefer to stick to what is said originally. The more relaxed friend knows I dont like plans to change once the effort is put in to having a conversation about whatever it is we’re going to do – so she follows through more with me. She is not a flake, but she is more relaxed, and again, it’s the ‘words’ thing… to some people words dont have the same power in their mind. Who knows why.

    I have an ex-friend who was simply a flake.

  25. DateDish Avatar

    Love this article! It is exactly the type of advice I give people… but yes, I have wondered if some might call it game playing… to me, it is setting the tone for success for a long-term relationship and sifts the wheat from the chaff pretty quickly.