Playing Hard to Get

There is a popular notion that women play 'hard to get' and men enjoy the challenge of chasing a hard-to-win beauty. But how much of it really goes on? Do many women really act in this way?


There is a popular notion that women play 'hard to get' and men enjoy the challenge of chasing a hard-to-win beauty. But how much of it really goes on? Do many women really act in this way? How do we recognise it if we see it? What is this phenomenon of 'playing hard to get' all about? And why does it have an enduring hold on the romantic imagination? Let's proceed by considering three possible arguments as to why women might play hard to get.

1. The Economic Argument

Here we consider beauty as a 'scarce resource', after the manner of economists trying to understand human behaviour. It is a common observation that men are attracted to beautiful women, and men like to think of themselves as being capable of earning the love of a great beauty.

Since the supply of great beauties is limited, and the demand strong, such a woman could reasonably be expected to be aware of her 'romantic value' and she might proceed by being more choosy.

Following this line of thought we might wonder – perhaps playing hard to get arises from women using their beauty as leverage to be pursued by more desirable men? A beautiful woman might indeed decide to play hard to get, or she might not. But since she presumably wants to find genuine love, how could anyone ever know she was playing hard to get? After all, she would have to knock back most offers simply from necessity, there being too many men attracted to her to be encouraging to all of them. Not only that, she has probably had to develop some manner of deflecting attention anyway so as not to be pestered all the time. This could not fairly be called playing hard to get.

A woman who believes in 'falling in love' and is seeking a 'soulmate' might appear to be choosy, but given the unlikelihood of ever finding a soulmate, in that more idealised sense, presumably the odds of finding him would be the same with the first man as with the last. She might even have become attuned to seeking non-obvious attributes in men since she never really knew who valued her only for her looks. For similar reasons she might have very poor judgement, and choose the first man who seems to her to be special according to her own spontaneous or idiosyncratic measure. In any case, this motivation would be the opposite of trying to maximise her own 'romantic value'.

A beautiful woman who is more pragmatic and looking less for love than for her own benefit may very well become calculating in how she uses her beauty. Such a woman might decide to play hard to get, but this is not a 'romantic' ploy but an 'economic' one. If she then clothed her behaviour in a persona of romantic tease, this outer style would only mimic something else. Otherwise she could be openly calculating and make no secret of wanting to use men for her own ends. Some men would still be attracted to that for their own purposes. But that too could not be called romantic behaviour.

If we take the case, not of the great beauty, but of the reasonably attractive woman, we can see that she has some advantages. She still has high 'romantic value' yet without the nuisance of too many suitors, or too much jealousy from other women. She would probably be even more mindful of not appearing to play hard to get, in the 'economic' sense, so as not to appear vain.

From all this we can see that 'playing hard to get' is not essentially an economic notion. To the extent that it became so it would be unappealing, and if this was disguised it would reveal even more strongly that the real phenomenon is of a different nature. The ambiguity in the phrase 'playing hard to get' is that it could be used by disappointed men, not to describe a kind of appealing behaviour by a woman, but to account for their own failure to win a particularly attractive woman. So it would not be fair to use the term to describe the simple fact that a woman has to turn down some, perhaps many, offers. This is simply the nature of the game. So too is the 'economic' fact that notably beautiful women usually have more options. They have to narrow the field somehow, and their motivations are usually so many faceted and idiosyncratic as to defy any simple characterisation.

2. The Testing Argument

Let us consider another possible explanation of the phenomenon of playing hard to get. We could call this the 'testing' argument. A woman will usually need to delay any strong response to a man to give her time to judge his character. A woman who is seeking genuine love, and reasonable compatibility, will need to take time. She will probably want the opportunity to date different men and over a reasonable period of time to 'test' them, and indeed her own feelings about them.

The delay and selectivity involved in this could hardly be called playing hard to get.

Most probably she is not trying to prolong the process at all, for dating can be awkward and difficult. She is almost certainly trying to find an emotional connection sooner rather than later. Many, perhaps most people experience the dating scene as somewhat emotionally daunting, especially beyond early young adulthood. Soon enough it becomes more serious and most women would be happy to find Mr Right quickly. The having is more appealing than the luring or chasing.

If people are dating without serious intent, either because they still feel themselves to be too young, or because they are seeking casual sexual encounters, playing hard to get is not likely to be a significant factor. For those who are too young, the goal is general companionship, usually found more satisfyingly in groups than in couples. For those seeking casual sexual encounters there is no real point in the kind of delay and related enjoyment found in the phenomenon of playing hard to get. It is possible to imagine some of this, but it borrows its resonance from the world of real relationships, not that of casual sex. In any case, the evidence is in. When casual sex and 'hooking up' becomes the norm, romantic behaviour in general diminishes greatly, including even dating itself.

3. The Romantic Argument

Neither the 'economic' or 'testing' arguments gave any satisfactory explanation for 'playing hard to get'. They could be seen as using it in different ways, but as a phenomenon its origin needs to be sought in some aspect of the 'romantic sense'.

The first thing we can note is that it is an instance of playfulness. The romantic sense is broader than that, and is not necessarily playful. But within the range of romantic behaviour we can identify some that is playful. Men's emotions are more notably oriented to playfulness than women's. Some women recognise this more clearly and feel comfortable tapping into men's sense of play by 'playing hard to get'. The use of the term 'play' is no accident. It is a kind of game, in the sense of being a kind of 'contest'. Yet for most women this kind of romantic sense is not prominent. Most instances of women's romantic playfulness involve things like teasing glances, pretend evasions and mock challenges. These are 'micro' phenomena, in the sense of occurring within particular encounters, often group encounters. They are not patterns of behaviour over extended periods. They are also light in tone, and obvious in intent rather than subtle.

A contest depends on the possibility of winning or losing. For most people, both men and women, who are seriously trying to find 'the one', the prospect of losing is not appealing at all.

If you are putting your heart on the line, the prospect of rejection does not provide some frisson of enjoyment, or some playful tension, but is fraught with anxiety.

Most women therefore do not play hard to get, nor do men enjoy a chase in which there is a good chance they will experience emotional turmoil and loss.

The prospect of genuine failure does not excite people who are looking for love. We might imagine then that playing hard to get is only for those seeking the thrill of a casual sexual conquest. They could enjoy a 'failure' because nothing was on the line except the possibility of one lost thrill. Nothing is really risked, and it is mere play. And yet we saw earlier that when people are only seeking casual sex there is a greatly diminished playfulness in any real sense, and a rather pragmatic calculus is at work that tends to reduce the whole 'play' of romance entirely.

It seems then that playing hard to get has a fairly limited place in the world of dating. It cannot fairly be used to describe 'economic' and 'testing' behaviour, and in the romantic sphere is constrained by the seriousness that comes when people are looking to put their hearts on the line. Does this mean that playing hard to get is a phenomenon of little significance? I don't think so. But to find the answer we need to look further.

4. The Marriage Argument

Marriage is the context in which playing hard to get has the greatest potential to flourish.

Why is that? The playfulness which is meant to be the heart of the phenomenon can only really flourish when you know you are not going to fail, where success is assured. A woman is only likely to venture this kind of playfulness with the assurance that the man will respond in the same spirit. A man is only likely to respond enthusiastically to the 'game' if he feels assured that his 'pursuit' will be successful.

Let's look more closely at why this kind of game is appealing. The appeal of such play depends on accentuating distance, which in this case heightens the emotional distinctiveness of masculine and feminine. A woman who acts in an intentionally alluring and knowing way towards a man heightens her femininity, and a man who responds by 'pursuing' her heightens his masculinity. The fact that it is not 'real' is integral to the enjoyment. Just as we can watch sports or movies with a 'willing suspension of disbelief' so too can a man and woman enter into the arena or theatre of 'romantic play'. This heightens emotion by lifting us out of the everyday 'real' world.

The enjoyment comes from the otherness of the other, the lack of being in control, and dependence on the gift of the other. You know you will receive the gift of the other, but you do not know exactly what, when and how.

It is about surprise and creativity, not risk and uncertainty.

This is what makes something a game – it matters, but it does not matter. And romance is a game where the chasee wants to be caught by the only one she wants chasing her. And the chaser wants to be playfully delayed and teased by the only one he wants to catch. It is a game with two winners and no losers.