Pros and Cons of Self-Defeating Behaviors

Ally and Rob have been dating for a year. They get into a big fight the day before Valentine’s Day. Ally decides to cut off all contact with Rob the following day. What are the pros and cons of her decision?

Why people make decisions that are manifestly against their own self-interest is a question that recurs across multiple domains of human experience. Instances of self-defeating decision-making can be as varied as accounts and theories for their occurrence. Examples of self-defeating behaviors can run the gamut from repeatedly picking the “wrong guy” as a boyfriend to interrupting abruptly a medication regimen at the first sign of health. This post focuses on self-defeating behaviors that are made from an emotional place in the context of a fight with a romantic partner.

As an example, let’s say Ally and Rob have been dating exclusively for a year and Rob makes an effort to plan a date for Valentine’s Day that Ally will like. Rob consults with Ally about her preferences, lets Ally know about the general outline for the date, and Ally expresses excitement about the outlined plans. The day before the date, Ally and Rob get into a fierce argument. They are at a bar, and Ally sees Rob looking over at an attractive woman long enough to trigger her doubts and anxiety about his level of commitment to their relationship. In that moment, she also feels disrespected by the attention he gives this other woman and embarrassed lest her friends, who are also at the bar, notice Rob “checking out” somebody else. The feelings of doubt, anxiety, disrespect and embarrassment then prompt Ally to experience secondary feelings of anger and outrage. Ally and Rob begin to argue in the bar, initially with strong affect but in hushed tones. They then leave the bar earlier than planned, and by the time they are back at Rob’s apartment, they are both yelling at each other. During the course of that argument, Ally tells Rob she doesn’t want to see him tomorrow and she then leaves the apartment. The following day on Valentine’s Day, Ally sticks to her pronouncement and does not return any of Rob’s texts or phone calls; she also makes alternative plans to spend the day with some of her girlfriends.

From one perspective, Ally’s decision is self-defeating: Ally had been looking forward to spending Valentine’s Day with Rob and she forecloses the possibility of repairing the fight by breaking off communication with him for the entire day. One “pro” to her decision however is that it serves to communicate to Rob the intensity of her emotional experience. The decision reflects her level of anger and serves up emotional pain to Rob that Ally may perceive as commensurate with the emotional pain she experienced at the bar.

Ally’s decision appears still more understandable when viewed from the perspectives of long term versus short term goals. From a “long term goals” perspective, the decision appears self-defeating and a “con” as it is likely to exacerbate further the damage that Rob’s behavior visited upon the relationship. From a “short term goals” perspective however, Ally’s decision is a “pro” as it achieves the goal of communicating anger and of visiting some retribution onto Rob in the form of anxiety about his possibly losing Ally.

Lastly, in regards to self-defeating behaviors, consider as well Rob’s behavior at the bar. Rob put in time and effort into planning Valentine’s Day with Ally. But the day before this big date, he conspicuously checks out a girl at a bar in the presence of Ally and some of her friends. Why Rob chose to act in this way on that night is something he might want to seek to understand in therapy.