Video games provide an opportunity for team building, relaxation, and vicarious experiences you couldn’t have anywhere else, but for couples where one person is more interested in them than the other, video games might only produce the inconvenient question: should we break up? In a relationship, the video game problem can be a varied one. A partner could be truly hooked on gaming, or you may just want them to chill out with Call of Duty and play Shredder’s Revenge with you instead. No matter what form the video game problem takes in your relationship, I’ve gathered advice from experts and people who have asked themselves that question themselves to help you decide how to approach you or your partner’s attachment to games.
For many couples where video games act as an unwanted third party, the breakup question is responded to with a frustrated but unequivocal yes. Daniel, whose name has been changed for this article, had his two-and-a-half-year relationship and engagement end because of his daily gaming. He now understands how much he values and missed solitary activities when he was in a relationship. Jade’s eight-month relationship ended over a variety of things, but his ex-boyfriend’s behavior with a toxic batch of gaming buddies put irreparable pressure on it. Jade is now in a “much more peaceful” relationship, he said. Amy, whose name has also been changed for this article, understood her relationship with her ex-girlfriend couldn’t be rekindled because of gaming.
“I quickly realized it wasn’t going to work if she didn’t change her gaming habits,” she said. Before they broke up, Amy’s ex would often abandon her on date nights as soon as a Discord notification would ding. She’d run off to play Arma 3. “When it became clear she wasn’t going to [fix her gaming habits], I gave up on patching things up with her.”
Ending the partnership was the right way to go for these couples, but if you’re currently in a relationship ruined by gaming, remember that there are options before abandoning ship. Romances aren’t the stuff of songs and movies, they’re the product of flawed human effort. No relationship of yours will be all utopia, all heart-shaped chocolates all the time, but as Los Angeles dating coach Amie Leadingham sees it, “what ultimately keeps a couple together is not necessarily love, but rather how they choose to handle the challenges that they face.”
“Couples who are able to fight constructively and resolve their differences in a healthy way are more likely to stay together than those who either avoid conflict altogether or allow it to spiral out of control,” she said. “It takes a lot of hard work to maintain a happy and healthy relationship, but it is well worth the effort for those who are willing to put in the time and effort.”
And if it’s not, I’ve included some tips for breaking up, too.
Make your feelings known
First things first: if you’re feeling bugged by your partner’s attention to gaming, “speak up, and early,” Daniel said. “My ex had a problem with it for almost a year, but she never made it an issue until it was way too late. So if you have a problem with your partner’s gaming hobby, let them know.”
“For example, you might say ‘I really love it when we watch movies together, can we start to make that more of a weekly routine?’ rather than, “All you do is play games all day, and you never pay attention to me,’” Chung said. You can also use this phrasing when sharing queasy feelings, like “I feel lonely when you stay awake to play video games because it seems like you’re prioritizing your friends over quality time with me. I’d like it if you started logging off at 11 p.m.”
If you feel like you’re losing your relationship because you can’t stop clinging to games, you need to share that with your partner, too. “Addiction is a difficult thing to face,” Leadingham said. “So often, addiction is seen as a personal failing, something that reflects badly on who you are as a person.” But Leadingham stressed that it can happen to anyone. To best cope with it, summon your bravery and share your problems with your partner.
“This process may feel scary at first,” Leadingham said, “but gaining full support from your partner will help you release the shame and start working towards recovery. Find groups and resources that help you connect to a community. Realize you are not alone. There are people who want to help you overcome addiction and build a healthy, happy life.”
Leadingham also offered some concrete tips to help decrease your dependency on video games, like using a timer.
“A timer can be your friend to break the habit and create some great self-boundaries,” she said. “You can set a timer on how long you can play your video game. Also, if your game console is in the house, try suggesting doing an activity outside the house with your partner so you can have quality time together.”
Try bonding activities
To that effect, Chung said that you can “work with your partner to compromise on a loose routine” to spend less time arguing about gaming and more time enjoying each other’s company.
If you’re able to put limitations on it and stick to them, your shared activity could potentially include gaming. You can schedule time to play something new together, or watch a show or movie based on a game, or watch each other play something. But if you or your partner need each other to branch out, “you can learn to connect with your partner in ways that can feel just as rewarding as video games,” Chung said.
This might seem impossible at first, especially if you’re used to seeing games as the main component in your personality or interests, but exploring new things with your partner can be an exciting opportunity to get to know each other better and discover more of yourself.
Try activities or hobbies that are unfamiliar to you both, anything from baking or jewelry making, and see if you can find something that appeals to you as a couple. An activity can even be as simple as committing to always going to bed at the same time, regardless of whether Discord is calling. You can also try hobby-swapping—let your partner show you what’s so great about their favorite pottery class or nature trail. While you might not love their hobby as much as they do, they’ll appreciate your care and demonstrated interest.
There are also benefits to traveling as a couple. It encourages you two to share experiences with the added bonus of putting some distance between you and your PC or console, things you might typically find too tempting. But if you’re not sure where your shared interests lie, set aside time to talk to your partner without distractions. Learn about each other’s wants and interests, either as a one-off conversation or on a recurring schedule.
For actual bonding to occur, though, you both need to be committed to the activity you choose and gracious to each other. Before ending her relationship, Amy tried getting more involved with her partner’s gaming sessions. Disappointingly, her ex made this difficult, choosing not to give her tips for playing her favorite games.
“Communicate often and clearly with your partner and if something isn’t working for you, tell them and work on it together,” Amy recommended. “I tried working on the relationship solely from my side but in the end, I’ve just ended up with a basic understanding of now outdated Hearts of Iron IV strategies from three DLCs ago.”
And when testing out interests, press yourself to be open-minded. “My ex-boyfriend’s primary complaint was that we liked different games, so he didn’t know how to spend time with me,” Jade said. “I even made a list of new things we’d always wanted to try that we could try together, like roller skating or painting, but he told me he didn’t want any new hobbies and that he liked the ones he already had. It was really frustrating!”
Breaking up doesn’t mean you failed
You’ve shared your feelings, taken weekly rock climbing classes together, but found that gaming is still coming between you and your partner. Fulfilling long-term relationships require matched effort and work, but if the work is feeling difficult and your problems are not changing, it could be time to break up.
Breakups have love’s inverse reputation—there are just as many songs, but they involve two times the references to smashing headlights with a baseball bat. The reality of a breakup is undeniably difficult, and there’s a lot of unavoidable discomfort, like tears and the awkward period of readjusting to life without someone you’re used to. But breaking up doesn’t mean your relationship wasn’t important or your effort was wasted. A breakup is how you show yourself and your partner you respect each other enough to find what you need.
“A relationship is a team effort,” Jade said. “It’s supposed to be you two against the world, and not you two against each other. If your partner isn’t making an effort to meet you halfway or take your concerns seriously, you can find someone who will. I promise.”
But how do you know it’s time to move on? Leadingham offers a few signs: “if your partner consistently chooses their video game over spending time with you, if they regularly break agreements, or if they are abusive or aggressive in any way towards you, it might be time to call it quits.”
“The issue of staying in a relationship or not comes down to how safe a person feels to be in the relationship, and how confident they are to be able to address and resolve problems as a couple,” Chung said. “If it feels as though you cannot safely address concerns without it backfiring, that may be an indication that the relationship is functioning poorly and needs help.”
Initiating this big change can be daunting, but after you do it, you’ll both be free to look for what you want, whatever that is. Leadingham said that a possible benefit of breaking up is that afterwards, “you will both have more time to focus on your own hobbies and interests.”
“Plus, you both might be able to meet new people and potentially find someone who is more compatible,” she said.
Daniel echoed this in discussing his experience of having a partner frustrated by his gaming. He attempted to save the relationship, but until his engagement ended, he didn’t realize how much he needed and valued being single and alone. “I know relationships require sacrifice (and I sacrificed a lot),” he said, “but in the end, if doing what makes you happy is antithetical to being in a healthy relationship then you gotta examine what you want more out of life.” He is currently happily single and playing games as much as he wants.
But if you are struggling to balance video games with the rest of your life in spite of your breakup, be cautious about leaning on them to avoid icky feelings. Instead, “make it a point to fill your time with various hobbies and coping methods so that you don’t end up further isolating yourself from real-life connections,” Chung said. “Developing social networks can help form a healthier relationship to video games that’ll undoubtedly benefit future romances too.”
Breaking up is easier said than done, as is the (actionable, you should try some of it out) advice given in this article. When you’re in a floundering relationship, time moves slowly, and after the relationship is over, its impression on you can be felt for irritatingly long. But sooner or later, you’ll have to remind yourself of your value and your partner’s as individuals with desire, both worthy of pursuing a full life. Wherever that fundamental truth leads you in your relationship, you can be certain that it trumps gaming every time.