The Games People Play

Attention: Paul habitually forgets to take the bins out on nights when his husband, Andy, works late. This inevitably leads to a fight.

Love: Suzy criticises her husband Ben incessantly. Ben blocks it out (Stonewalls) until the point that he explodes in verbal aggression and name calling. Ben spends the next week making up to her with gifts and attention.

Resentment: Marg is married to Chris. She is Chris’ personal assistant, cleaner, childminder and cook. She does it all uncomplainingly. Chris avoids spending time with Marg because he says “she makes me feel like a stupid little kid”.

Anxiety: Usually conscientious Manny has made serious work errors just prior to his last three performance reviews. He says he self-sabotages but doesn’t why or how.

Shame: Piet makes subtly disparaging comments about his wife, Sami’s appearance, especially during special, one-on-one occasions.

When it comes to human relationships, things are not always as they seem. People are rarely 100% upfront with themselves and others about their real intentions of all their words and actions. We are emotional animals and we are driven by our emotions to fulfil our desires or avoid our fears. Not all these motives are acceptable to other people or to ourselves. So, we are left blind.

Psychiatrist, Eric Berne, founded Transactional Analysis in the 1950’s. Transaction Analysis (TA) is a theory of interpersonal interactions (called transactions). According TA, many transactions have an apparent (face value) motive and a hidden motive that is driven by some deeper need like security or esteem. Many of the transactions identified by Berne now seem outdated or sexist. His theory borrows heavily from Freud’s theories, which are now unfashionable.

However, in my view, Berne’s insights about hidden motives are as true now as then. In my work as a psychologist there are many occasions when there is more than meets the eye to way my clients act in their relationships. From a Schema Therapy perspective, there are clear emotional needs that all people seek out. When we invalidate our own needs, we seek these covertly, unwittingly.

Here are just a sample of how these hidden needs and emotions can influence behaviour:


Parents usually agree that kids prefer negative attention to no attention. Society tells adults however that it is rational and right to prefer no attention to negative attention. But the preference for negative attention doesn’t end in childhood, it just goes underground.

In the case of Paul, he had a Subjugation Schema which prevented him from asking for needs to be met. Paul acknowledged that fights with Andy were preferable to being ignored. Paul sought and received some attention by (semi-wittingly) leaving a trap that neat-freak Andy couldn’t help reacting to.


A special category of attention is love. In long-term relationships it is very common for partners to take one another for granted. Even in healthy and strong relationships, the initial peak of euphoric love clearly cannot last.

Resolution of conflict can approximate the more raw and giddy feelings of new love. This was the pattern that Suzy realised she was falling into. Her Emotional Deprivation and Abandonment Schemas intensified her need for love. The post-fight reconciliation was the time that Ben made her feel most special. And it was her period of greatest emotional calm.


You might know someone you’d describe as selfless. We often speak of such people in reverential tones: “She’s a saint”, “He’s generous to a fault”. But self-sacrificing is never a victimless crime. The self-sacrificer will crash and burnout. And if they don’t, they will ooze resentment which poisons and sabotages others.

Resentment is a slow-burning emotion of the anger family. It is the feeling that those in chains (either self-imposed or imposed by others) feel toward the free. Resentment makes us undermine and cut down those who have something we don’t have, can’t have or don’t dare to have.

Marg was resentful of how easily Chris let himself off the hook. Marg had a Self-Sacrifice and a Self-Punitive Schema. Marg would feel guilty acting like Chris does, it would be unacceptable to her to lean so heavily on others. So, Marg would subtly send Chris little barbs that left him feeling inadequate.

Anxious Avoidance

Everyone feels anxious sometimes. It is OK to be anxious – anxiety can keep us safe by helping us avoid dangerous things. However, anxiety can also make us avoid safe things that are out of our comfort zone.

Manny had a Failure Schema and a Dependence/Incompetence Schema. He was terribly frightened of responsibility, but he didn’t know this because he never found himself in responsible positions. His self-sabotage protected him from facing his fears.

Hiding in Shame

Shame is the feeling of being worthless or not good enough. Shame is the emotion that directs us to hide our flaws from ourselves and others.

Piet felt he was unable to sexually satisfy Sami. He would cut her down to make up for his own feelings of inadequacy and to avoid intimacy. Piet had strong Defectiveness and Emotional Inhibition Schemas.


All of us probably play at least some of these games. We are probably only marginally aware of this, if at all. Shining light on these dynamics can lead to finding more honest, direct methods of satisfying our desires and alleviating our fears.

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