Recently, a female friend asked me: “Can you write an article on how to not get played?” When I asked for further clarification on the word “played,” she defined it as something to the effect of “used, lied to, and/or cheated on.” I’ll try my best.
Sometimes in the early stages of a romance there is greater potential for hurt feelings and feeling “used” because partners haven’t explicitly defined the relationship. There’s a lot of uncertainty in couples that haven’t yet had “the talk”,1 and one (or both) partners will use the lack of exclusivity or being “official” as an opportunity to fool around. To minimize this risk early in a relationship, ideally you would make an honest declaration of your needs and expectations from your partner. In other words, clear up the confusion and make sure he/she knows that you are confident and secure (and not a doormat). In the episode “Definitions” on How I Met Your Mother (see video clip here), the characters illustrate this phenomenon well. Lily (the wiser, more emotionally intelligent member of the group) realizes that her friends Barney and Robin will end up getting hurt if they continue casually hooking up, and urges them to define their relationship. Later in the episode, Lily is proven right.
Aside from the talk, there are a bunch of things to be on the lookout for in your partner’s personality, mannerisms, and behavior that can be good predictors of whether he/she is a “player”—for example, an individual’s “permissive” or “restrictive” attitudes toward casual sex and exclusivity. Researchers refer to this as “sociosexual orientation” (an example item on the scale researchers use is “Sex without love is OK.” – Agree/Disagree),2 and people who are more permissive or unrestricted are more likely to try to “play” you.3,4 Researchers have also found that people who are generally careless, scattered, or lacking in self-control are more likely to do or say hurtful things to their partners. What psychologists call “conscientiousness” (one of the “Big 5” personality traits) is also a variable that contributes to exercising discipline when faced with temptation. So if your partner is generally irresponsible (low conscientiousness), that may be an indicator of getting “played.”5
There is also some truth to the belief that people who act very suspicious and accusatory toward their partners may actually be guilty of cheating themselves. Insecurely-attached individuals, who experience chronic (and often unwarranted/illogical) concerns that their partners will betray or abandon them, are actually more likely than secure people to have affairs. So if your partner is constantly questioning or interrogating you on your whereabouts or behavior (displaying a lack of trust), he or she might actually be the one screwing around.6,7
The bottom line is that it’s often unwise to let your guard down with someone too early on in a romance. Don’t be afraid to talk openly and honestly about your beliefs, attitudes, expectations, and experiences in relationships. In these talks with your partner, you’ll get a better sense for what’s in his/her mind with regards to sex and romance, and might be able to judge better whether he/she is trustworthy or a “player.” Be on the lookout for clues in how they talk about their past (reflecting sociosexual orientation), if they act very jealous or possessive (reflecting insecure attachment), or their general mannerisms (reflecting low self-control). Although change is certainly possible, personality traits are relatively stable over time and it may be naïve to expect a careless, insecure, or sexually “unrestricted” person to transform into Mr. or Mrs. Right just because you spend time together.
1Knobloch, L. K., & Miller, L. E. (2008). Uncertainty and relationship initiation. In S. Sprecher, A. Wenzel, J. Harvey (Eds.), Handbook of relationship initiation (pp. 121-134). New York, NY US: Psychology Press.
2Simpson, J. A., & Gangestad, S. W. (1991). Individual differences in sociosexuality: Evidence for convergent and discriminant validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(6), 870-883.
3Seal, D., Agostinelli, G., & Hannett, C. (1994). Extradyadic romantic involvement: Moderating effects of sociosexuality and gender. Sex Roles, 31, 1-22.
4Barta, W. D., & Kiene, M. (2005). Motivations for infidelity in heterosexual dating couples: The roles of gender, personality differences, and sociosexual orientation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22, 339-360.
5Schmitt, D. P. (2004). The big five related to risky sexual behavior across 10 world regions: Differential personality associations of sexual promiscuity and relationship infidelity. European Journal of Personality, 18, 301-319.
6Allen, E. S., & Baucom, D. H. (2004). Adult attachment and patterns of extradyadic involvement. Family Process, 43, 467-488.
7Bogaert, A. F., & Sadava, S. (2002). Adult attachment and sexual behavior. Personal Relationships, 9, 191-204.
Dr. Dylan Selterman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman’s research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.