What to Do When Video Game Overuse Harms Your Relationship
Video games can be a pain point for some couples. When one partner spends more time playing virtual football games with their friends rather than engaging with their significant other, that can create tension or resentment. But during a pandemic when people are trying to stay home as much as possible, there are limited options for entertainment and recreation.
Video games, particularly the collaborative ones that allow people to play with family and friends, can be a source of community and social connection during COVID-19 restrictions when people are struggling with mental health problems, said Ryan Hansen, a psychologist at Reset Button Consulting in Columbus, Ohio.
But the pandemic doesn’t give partners a license to ignore their relationships.
“It’s really hard to imagine when you’re playing 20 or 30 hours a week that that isn’t impacting some area of your life,” Hansen said. “If you’re only playing one or two hours a week, you’re probably doing pretty good. It’s just the gray area in the middle that’s a little tricky to sort out.”
For healthy relationships, couples may need to navigate that gray area, which can be more difficult under current circumstances. OnlineCounselingPrograms.com asked professionals in the counseling field to weigh in on how people can manage their gaming hobbies while maintaining healthy relationships.
Common Relationship Problems Caused by Excessive Gaming
Lily Lu, LMFT, a behavioral health specialist at Mind Health Services in Los Gatos, California, said some of the couples who come to her for counseling related to video game use already have broken relationships. But many couples still have a chance to heal because they recognize they have just started to grow apart.
According to professionals interviewed, there are a number of warning signs that video games are affecting a relationship.
Warning Signs that Gaming Is Affecting a Relationship
- Loneliness. Do one or both partners spend a lot of free time alone? Does your partner decline to join group activities they used to enjoy?
- Mood and anxiety disorders. Is a partner territorial about video game use? Does either partner more easily withdraw or get angry?
- Infidelity. Are there signs that a partner is having a relationship with someone else? Are they going out of their way to hide appointments or conversations?
- Inability to have sexual and emotional intimacy. Has there been a change in a partner’s need for sexual intimacy? Have they been unwilling to share feelings and concerns?
Video game overuse typically is accompanied by partners’ inability to influence each other around the behavior, resulting in feelings of neglect or insignificance, said Mathew Meyers, LMFT, a therapist and owner at Traverse Counseling and Consulting in Plymouth, Minnesota.
One partner may hesitate to bring up the problem, having lost confidence in how to talk with the other. And the more the couple is unable to thoughtfully discuss and process what is causing strain, “the more the shame-and-blame cycle amps up,” Meyers said.
The gamer may retreat further into video gaming as a means of managing negative feelings about the relationship. In contrast, the partner who does not play video games may concede to avoid drama, which is characteristic of the often overlooked problem of withdrawal from a relationship.
They say to themselves: “I’ve kind of given up, and I’m stonewalling. This is an easy way to kind of manage my hopelessness because I can create some stasis in the relationship,” Meyers explained.
As with many behavioral issues, recognizing video game overuse earlier can help prevent it from developing into a bigger problem. But without strict definitions of what constitutes overuse, it can be difficult to identify if a partner has a problem that needs to be addressed. Standardized screenings do not exist for gaming or digital disorders, and disorders are not recognized the same as other addictions, Hansen said. As a result, concerned individuals should reflect on the level of impairment that gaming may be causing a person and whether it’s affecting their ability to function, he said.
“If this area of your life is eating into other areas of your life, that’s when you start to have a problem,” he said.
Hansen noted that if a partner answers “yes” to any of these questions, they may need to consider seeking help for their gaming behavior:
- Is your school or work performance compromised?
- Is it difficult for you to get enough sleep?
- Are you withdrawing from any kind of social life?
- Does gaming affect how you are as a parent and/or partner?
How to Bring Up Video Game Overuse With Your Partner
To prepare to bring up video game overuse, partners should first recognize that gaming is a culture for some people. Establishing that awareness shows a willingness to understand why gaming has been so important to a person.
“What might seem absolutely ridiculous to you in terms of spending 10 hours a week playing video games is actually considered pretty normal within that culture,” Hansen said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good or bad, but just that to all of somebody’s friends and the people that they’re hanging out with, it would seem completely normal.”
How partners concerned about video game use approach a conversation about the topic can play an important role in whether they are received openly.
Use a ‘shared garden approach’
Meyers suggested that couples use a positive analogy representative of growth and consider that each partner has their own garden and then a shared garden. Individual gardens include factors in each partner’s lives that provide energy and growth. From those gardens, what can partners then bring to their shared garden for them to influence and nurture their relationship together? Where does video gaming fit in this idea of the individual partners’ gardens and the shared garden?
Use non-defensive language
Because language and tone can facilitate conversations, partners should use non-defensive language that emphasizes the relationship is the priority, Meyers said. Start with statements such as: “You’re really important to me …” or “I really like being with you …” This technique helps keep the tone of the conversation calm and less confrontational, indicating a willingness to be understanding.
Use ‘I’ statements
Individuals should highlight their own feelings and beliefs instead of assumptions about their partners’ feelings and beliefs by using “I” statements. This less accusatory approach allows for the actual problem to be stated, Hansen said. Begin by saying : “I feel ignored when …” or “I get confused by …” Because the phrasing makes it less likely to assign wrongdoing or imply that the other partner is at fault, it creates an atmosphere conducive to less-heated discussion.
Be assertive and constructive
To be truly helpful, partners should be assertive and constructive at the same time, Lu said. For example, partners should have concrete proposals for alternative hobbies, including self-care, for the video gamer and hobbies they are both interested in. “With joint activities, the couple will feel more togetherness,” Lu said. Offering specific ideas, such as running a 5K for charity, renovating a room, or cooking together, indicates how much thought you’ve given to the conversation. Identifying a range of specific possibilities will prompt even more ideas and get partners to buy into alternatives.
If partners are at an impasse, consider getting professional help. Couples should be open to considering that video game overuse may be a symptom of something else affecting the relationship dynamic and explore that possibility with a professional counselor or therapist
How to Set Your Relationship Up for Success
Understanding and compromise can go a long way in preserving couples’ relationships, and that includes video game use. If someone knowingly enters a relationship with a gamer, “asking them to completely give it up would be the same thing as asking an Ohio State football fan to never watch a game again,” Hansen said. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Understand that relationships are about staying connected and video games can provide connections, Hansen said.
“I am always more of a fan of video games that allow people to connect with each other,” he said. “You can overdo it playing Mario Kart, but if you’re playing with your spouse, not so much. If you get into some of these games together, that can lead to a lot of positive experiences.”
Partners have to work together so their relationship can succeed, he said. Just having conversations about the issue prioritizes the relationship, which helps build trust and allows for grace. The next step would be to implement strategies that help the couple manage the effects of use on their relationship.
Relationship Management Strategies
- Monitoring video game use. If possible, both partners can work together to track and analyze time spent playing video games. They can decide together what seems reasonable.
- Establishing weekly check-ins. These will help partners understand what each is doing and allow them to schedule date nights and other joint activities. They also have an opportunity to express concerns.
- Playing video games with your partner and with friends. Participating in those games that allow for social connections helps the gamer connect with family and friends, too. This also builds a support network.
- Identifying what else gives you joy. Partners may need to consider finding their own hobbies to lean into. Try new activities, even when spending time alone, that are rewarding to you.
“Partners may not be able to change their partners,” Lu said. “However, partners may share their concerns and model good behavior and habits.”
Information on OnlineCounselingPrograms.com is not intended to be a substitute for professional counseling advice. Always consult your qualified professionals with any questions you may have about behavior-related issues.
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