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Is Your Relationship a Game? Then Why Treat it Like One

Is Your Relationship a Game? Why Treat it Like OneAs I’ve written here countless times, a romantic relationship — even the best relationship — takes constant attention and work. It doesn’t necessarily need to be hard work, but you do need to pay attention to your partner and your relationship.

Most relationships fail when one or both partners lose track of one another, or lose the ability to communicate clearly and openly with each other.

So aping the trend of “Hey, let’s gamify everything that’s work to make it more fun and less like work!” some folks have started publishing “relationship apps.” One popular relationship app has couples trying to keep their “love tank” full.

But should your serious, romantic, long-term relationship become just fodder for putting arbitrary metrics on scientifically-questionable concepts like a “love tank?”

A few weeks ago, Susie Neilson writing over at The Atlantic, explored this concept:

Consumers respond very well to gamification in other sectors; businesses report increases in “engagement” by hundreds of percentage points when they gamify.

Using gamification, Kahnoodle wants to make maintaining your relationship automatic and easy—as easy as tapping a button. Its options include sending push notifications to initiate sex; “Koupons” that entitle the bearer to redeemable movie nights and kinky sex; and, of course, the love tank, which fills or empties depending on how many acts of love you’ve logged.

“Novelty works like an endorphin,” says Zuhairah Scott Washington, the company’s founder. “Couples have a desire to go out and do something new, but oftentimes they’re tired. The mobile app… incorporates a lot of research on what makes relationships successful but gamifies it to make it fun, makes it fun to do the work required to keep relationships fresh.”

How can something be novel if an app forces you to do it over and over again (e.g., refilling your “love tank”,1 sending coupons, scheduling dates)?

But more importantly, what happens when you start objectifying things that, well, shouldn’t be objectified — like your relationship?

Eli Finkel nails it on the head in the article, “Much of the benefit of doing considerate things is linked to the fact that those things required thoughtfulness and effort. Take the thoughtfulness out of the acts and they lose much of their meaning.”

So while the app is trying to help your relationship by forcing you to focus on it on a day-to-day and week-to-week measure, it’s actually taking a lot of the qualities that are important to a long-term relationship’s health and growth. You know, things like spontaneity and thoughtfulness.

Thinking about your partner because you love and appreciate them is different than thinking about your partner because an app pings you to do so! After all, how “thoughtful” is it when the app reminds you to be, well, thoughtful toward your partner?

And if you need an app to remind you to engage in basic components of human social interaction, what does that say about the quality of your relationship to begin with?2

Neilson also talks to a psychologist who (and game theorist, so no surprise where his bias lies) that finds no problem with gamifying relationships. He explains how courtship is one big game, and then generalizes:

Game theory, for instance, explains why we love “the chase.” “A male’s willingness to court for a long time is a signal that he is likely to be a good male…” […]

Of course, online dating is a far cry from your 20th anniversary. But the game of love is “still a game after decades of living together,” Colman says. “It doesn’t mean you’re trivializing it.”

Umm, no it’s not. There’s no “game of love” in a 10-, 20-, or 30-year relationship. It’s just plain old, honest love at that point, and there’s no chasing the other person around. You’re not “playing” to try and get the other person — you’ve got them.3

These apps are relationship crutches for people who believe they are too busy to care and nurture their own relationship. People who can’t inherently remember to take the time to treat the more important thing in their life that they’re, well, the most important thing in their life. In that manner, they’re fine for what they are — a helper for two people who simply aren’t all that involved in their relationship, or need that extra reminder to think of their partner once or twice a week.

Good relationships are partly defined by never taking one’s partner for granted. And if such an app can help you not take your significant other for granted, well, I guess these apps can’t be all that bad. (Yes, they are.)4


Read the article: When a Relationship Becomes a Game

Is Your Relationship a Game? Then Why Treat it Like One


  1. That’s me and my wife’s favorite in-joke now, “How’s our love-tank doing, baby?” But no, we don’t use the app — we just thought it was a funny and slightly ridiculous concept. []
  2. “Oh, but I get so busy with work and stuff, this app can just help remind me that my partner is important too.” Here’s a no-brainer for you — if you need such a reminder, your relationship is in far more trouble than you could imagine. []
  3. In long-term relationships, the more games you play with your partner, the more likely you’re not going to be in that long-term relationship much longer. []
  4. But really, is it so hard to make a date night once a week and keep it?? Is it really so hard to sit down and talk to your partner honestly once in awhile about your feelings? If things aren’t coming naturally to your relationship — aren’t built-in by default — I’m not so sure an app is going to help. []

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Is Your Relationship a Game? Then Why Treat it Like One. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 22 Aug 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.