Love Games: Confessing feelings to a friend

Love Games: Confessing feelings to a friend

So you’ve been really good friends with a mate of yours for a couple of months. You get along well with each other like two peas in a pod. As time goes by, you realise that you have developed tender feelings for them and want to be more than just friends. Then comes the age old dilemma: should you confess to your potential soulmate, or should you just stay mates?

Your emotions play a role in your decision on whether to confess and love tends to affect our rationality. But worry no more! Coordination games can provide insight on whether to keep things platonic or become romantic.

Firstly, let’s assume in this scenario that you both secretly have a crush on each other and want to pursue a romantic relationship. To keep things simple, let’s also assume that you and your mate have two responses: 1) confess your romantic feelings 2) don’t confess. [1]


So what are the potential outcomes?

1. Neither confess: You will keep being worried on whether to release your suppressed feelings or not and wonder if your crush likes you back. Since you both won’t know about each other’s true feelings, you’ll both play it cool and the friendship is the same as usual. (Payoffs for both not confessing: 0)

2. One confesses, one doesn’t confess: The confessor has shown vulnerability by putting their heart on their sleeve and have opened themselves up for potential rejection. In contrast. the person who hasn’t confessed would receive a higher pay-off because they are now certain of the other person’s feelings and the ball is in their court on when and whether to pursue a romance. (Confessing: -1. Not confessing: 1)

3. Both confess: You will be both relieved from getting your feelings off your chest and can finally do what you’ve both been dreaming of: pursuing a romantic relationship with each other! (Payoffs for both confessing: 2,2).

To summarise, the coordination game of love would look like this:

From your perspective, if your mate confesses to you, your best response would be to confess back to them. If your mate doesn’t confess to you, you would get a higher pay-off by also not confessing because you can save yourself from potential embarrassment.  Similarly, your mate’s best responses are to reciprocate your feelings if you confess and stay quiet if you don’t say anything.

In this game there are two Nash equilibriums, where both parties both have the same level of utility: (Confess, Confess) or (Don’t Confess, Don’t Confess). While the (Don’t Confess, Don’t Confess) is a Nash equilibrium, it is not a pareto optimal outcome, because both of you can improve your outcomes by confessing to each other. (Confess, Confess) is the pareto optimal outcome, because you both can’t improve your payoffs by doing anything else.

Your best response depends on what your mate is doing and vice versa. If they confess, your best response is to confess and if they don’t confess, your best response is to not confess. Hence, there is no dominant strategy in the short-term coordination game of love. This situation is known as a coordination game because coordination is required to achieve the pareto optimal outcome [2]. Love requires two sides and it is only achievable if you both confess to each other. Coordination games are also known as leadership games because they require someone to take a leadership role to coordinate everyone’s efforts to get the best outcome. In this case, for you both to achieve the pareto optimal outcome of being in a romantic relationship with each other, someone needs do the first-move in confessing to each other. Your chance at love will only succeed if you both socially cooperate and confess to each other. Yet since you both have the emotionally “safer” option of not confessing, your cooperation might fail because of loss aversion.

However, it’s very unlikely that one person confesses and the other person doesn’t confess back. Usually if someone has confessed to you, you would feel more confident in confessing to the other person and would confess back in time after a while.


In the long run:

If one has confessed, it’s better for the other confess as well. While the confessor may feel embarrassed initially, they will feel relieved that they’ve given it a shot and will be able to move on to new romances quicker. The person who still hasn’t confessed will risk being jealous of the confessor’s future relationships and will regret not confessing. (Confessing: 2, Not confessing: -2)

If you both still haven’t confessed to each other, the distress of supressed feelings and uncertainty will take a toll. One also needs to factor in the time lost in potential romantic time together or pursuing other prospective relationships. Limerence also tends to die off after a long time without reciprocation and you will think the other person never had feelings for you. (Payoffs for both not confessing: -2)

As you can see, the dominant strategy for both players in the long-run love game are to confess and the Nash equilibrium of (Confess, Confess) is a pareto optimal outcome.

The insight at the end of the day? The success of love requires social cooperation from both mates to confess to each other. Understanding the coordination game of love can be difference between being just buds or blossoming a romance!



[1] Anonymous. (2014, September 10). How can I use Game Theory and the Prisoner’s Dilemma in daily life? [Forum answer]. Retrieved from

[2] Jagannatham, A. (2015). Lecture 06: Coordination Games- Introduction and Analysis [Video file]. Retrieved from