The Psychology Of Relationships: Psychological Games

Despite the promising name, psychological games are really no fun at all. They are unconscious, repetitive behavior patterns between two people (sometimes more), which will leave both of them feeling depleted and unhappy.

In transactional analysis we have quite specific patterns in mind when we talk about psychological games, or just games for short. One way of defining a game is as a set of matching interactions by two or more people where there is a hidden agenda at work and at some point a switch of roles between the  participants. A game ends in a predictable way and may be played over and over again.

Generally speaking, there are only 3 roles from which one can participate in a game: Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim. To show that these are roles we spell them with capital letters, to distinguish them from "real-life" rescuers such as an ambulance crew.

While they rescue people, they may not be doing so from a psychological role of "rescuing". If you find this terminology odd or even inappropriate, well, it's fairly old and Eric Berne's language was simply never updated. Hope that counts as an apology.


image of the concept of psychological games by Eric Berne

So, we have three psychological roles, and once you take any one of them, you set yourself up to participate in a game. (As you'll see, though, it's best never to get into any of them!) People will have their favorite game position, which they start off from.

Often our favorite position is something we have learned as a child. All three positions are inauthentic and dismiss some aspects about oneself or someone else (e.g. as a Rescuer I dismiss other people's capacity to think and act on their own behalf).

The Rescuer is a person who comes in with the overt agenda of doing things for other people or sorting them out in some way. The hidden belief is that other people are not capable of doing stuff for themselves, which puts the Rescuer in a "one-up" position.

However, the hidden assumption is often unconscious and a lot of Rescuers are well-meaning. Even so, classic Rescuers go in to help people without asking, doing more than their fair share, and ending up doing things they don't want to do.

The Victim is a person who asks other people to sort things out for him or her rather than doing it him- or herself: in other words, operating from a "one-down" position. Victims may put themselves down and disown their capacity to think and act for themselves.

They may not use their own Adult capacity to think and may believe that "I cannot cope on my own". The Victim may portray him- or herself  as powerless, and often feels powerless on the inside; however, even though Victims disown their own power, they have the power to initiate the switch of roles within a game (which gives them a lot of power in relationships).

Lastly, the Persecutor. He or she dismisses the capacity of others to think, feel or act on their own behalf. The Persecutor has a hidden agenda of punishing or belittling people in some way. Like the Rescuer, he or she comes from a one-up position.

A game can start once two people recognize each other to be in opposite roles, e.g. a Rescuer and a Victim. A set of predictable interactions follows, after which one person switches roles, say the Victim switches into Persecutor mode and the Rescuer follows the switch and becomes the Victim (possibly also a Persecutor). The switch in the game can be from any of the three positions to a different one. Just as with specific roles, people will also have a preferred point to switch to.

Let's go with an example. Not long ago, an associate described to me one of her colleagues, a person who seemed to have everybody running round to get things right for him. He would turn up late, or lose his glasses, or not get things right in some other way.

He'd present himself as a Victim and then start recruiting other people's help (Rescuers) to sort things out for him. He would get other people to do phone calls for him or look for his glasses or take over his cases when he was late. There would be a number of exchanges on this level, and then he would switch into being a Persecutor. He would tell people off for not getting it right for him, or being useless in some way.

That meant that the original Rescuers would become the Victims and end up feeling "kicked" or angry. The original Victim, now being the Persecutor, would also end up feeling a familiar bad feeling. He could justify his anger at the world, other people and his workplace, which he really didn't like. This particular game would get repeated again and again with the same outcomes.

As you can see, both Rescuer and Victim start off from inauthentic positions and go through a set of unconscious (or sometimes conscious) interactions which end in a switch of roles and familiar bad feelings all way round. People - maybe including you! - can repeat this pattern endlessly.

Why do people do this? There are many reasons why people play these types of games. One is that it justifies one's outlook on the world (the original Victim in the above example will feel confirmed in his belief that the world is a bad place and he can be angry with it).

It is also a way of not taking responsibility for changing anything about one's situation (for example, the guy described above could get himself another job instead of taking his frustration out on his colleagues).

Another reason why people play games is that they constitute attention. Games can be emotionally highly charged and despite the fact that they produce negative attention, this can be better than no attention at all. Not playing games might leave people feeling their loneliness and disconnection from others.

(The Victim/Persecutor in the above example may not have any friends or family and manages to get some interaction with others through playing games.)

If one looks at it like that, one could say a game is a failed attempt to be close to people. The participants want to be close and authentic with each other, but don't quite manage the risks of being open and honest and instead go for a slightly more predictable relationship pattern, a game (see also time structuring).

Although games leave us feeling bad, they are still structured according to predictable lines: the same thing happens again and again, which is much less frightening than going for the all-out unknown of being really close to someone. If I choose to be close to another human being, all structure goes, there is just you and me relating to each other, and anything may happen!

For some people that's a very frightening thing, so they divert their energy into games instead.

A game can also be a way of confirming set roles in a relationship, or staying within a symbiosis pattern. Within intimate relationships, games are often played at high intensity and we distinguish between first, second and third degree games. First degree games are at an intensity which is socially acceptable, like at work. Second degree games are more intense and are normally played behind closed doors (you may be able to hear your neighbors screaming at each other through the walls, but they wouldn't do that openly on the streets).

Third degree games involve lasting damage, like physical attacks or someone getting hurt in some other way (e.g. alcoholism), or someone going to prison or dying.

What's the solution?

If you want to try counselling as a way of gaining an insight into the psychological games you play, then you might wish to consider seeing a counsellor. In London, we suggest the services of the counsellors in North London, who are qualified to help men and women of all ages and sexual orientations.

First of all, think about the roles involved in games. Which one do you normally get into? From that, can you remember getting into a game with someone? How did it happen and what did you say to yourself afterwards? What's your preferred position to switch to? Once you know what is going on it will be easier for you to spot it sooner.

Despite being conscious of what is going on, you might still feel as if you're drawn into games. However, there are always two people (or more) involved in playing a game so you will always be contributing something to keeping it going. Remember, when you are authentic you do not conform any more to the hidden agenda of the game, so being real and congruent is one way out.

The other one is to own the good qualities of the role you tend to take, but not to act it out in some way. As a Rescuer you need to allow yourself to be resourceful. You can be available to people, but not give more than you want. Remember, don't rescue people, if you don't want to persecute them in some way afterwards!

They will just have to do with less support from you and do something else to fill in the gap (develop their own strengths, ask other people, and so on).

As a Victim you need to own your own vulnerability, but also your responsibility to arrange yourself and your own life in a way that's comfortable to you. It's your life after all. Do something about it and don't expect others to fill the gaps. If you tend to go into Persecutor mode, your job is to own your own power and potency, but not make other people pay for it. It's ok for you to be strong.

If you want to know more about how games may affect your relationship read on in applying games or have a look at the following books:

Eric Berne (1964) Games People Play, published by Penguin books. It's the original book on games. Some people love it (it certainly makes for funny reading if you like his humor), others think it's really boring. Berne goes through all sorts of possible games, but his case illustrations can sound outdated, funny or just plain odd.

Vann Joines, Ian Stewart (1987) TA Today, Lifespace Publishing. This is a good introduction into the main theories of transactional analysis. However, it describes TA in quite mechanical terms, and there is more to it than this. But you may find some of the exercises interesting or challenging.

Last updated 05.03.16

May 3 2016

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