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Why Men and Women Get Self-Destructive in Relationships

by Dr. Seth Meyers - January 30, 2014

Though the term “self-destructive” sounds pretty serious, most men and women occasionally engage in behavior that qualifies as self-destructive. A few common examples include overeating, charging a bit too much on the credit card, and losing your temper. Yet a subset of men and women engage in behavior that is more seriously self-destructive. I’ll focus on the more severe behavior in the hope of helping those of you who have a habit of being your own worst enemy in love.

When does self-destructive behavior become a problem?

Your self-destructive behavior becomes a problem when your behavior causes a pattern of negative consequences for you, the person you’re dating, or the overall relationship. I’ll focus on three examples of self-destructive behavior, and each example illustrates how severe and persistent self-destructive behavior usually leads to the end of a relationship.

Getting needy/pushing him away

Both men and women are capable of falling into this trap, so don’t focus too much on the pronouns I use for the example. Simply put, see if you find yourself in the example; if you do, I’ll help point you in the direction of change.

Christine is a 31-year-old woman with a good job and high salary, but she falls for guys who have intimacy issues and don’t really want to settle down. Soon after Christine starts dating each new guy, she starts fearing that he is pulling away which makes her chase him – and his affection – even more. She starts to feel rejected, but won’t allow herself to be pushed away. She calls more, vents negative feelings, and ultimately unleashes her anger and fear of abandonment onto him. What happens? You guessed it: He walks away, confirming her worldview that every guy she cares about will eventually leave her.

Losing your temper/saying things you later regret

In my practice in Los Angeles, I find that men tend to have more of a temper problem than women, and I believe this stems partly from the fact that boys are socialized to externalize their thoughts and feelings, while girls are socialized to internalize (or “swallow,” as a client of mine says) their feelings.

Jason was most self-destructive during the moments when he lost his temper. He came to see me for therapy because he got in a fight one night with his girlfriend which resulted in him throwing her down on the bed and scaring her. His relationship with his girlfriend was way too close: they met and started spending every night together way too soon and fought nonstop. Whenever they had a big disagreement, Jason would lose his temper completely. He would throw things, break them, or scream vicious words at his girlfriend that he, of course, didn’t really mean. Sadly, as he engaged in this behavior, he knew he was probably causing the end of the relationship – and he was usually right. Sooner or later, each girl he dated got fed up and left.

Playing games/using manipulation tactics

If there is one comment I make again and again with my clients, it’s this: You need a zero-tolerance policy for games and manipulations. People play games because they feel insecure, and they hope the mind games they play will give them more power or more of an upper hand in the relationship. But do manipulation tactics work in the long run? You know what they say: H- to the no! Why, then, do people keep playing games? Once self-destructive individuals start off on a self-destructive track (e.g., start yelling, overspending, drinking too much), they get highly compulsive, meaning that they have a hard time stopping the behavior. When they go to that self-destructive place in their mind, they feel like they’re stuck on a hamster wheel but can’t stop pedaling.

The most common game-playing technique self-destructive men and women get into is pretending that they don’t care about the other individual, or acting as if they might be interested in someone else. The motivation for game-playing is to elicit a reaction in the other individual. You’re dying to know: Do they really like me? Let me see how much. Maybe if I see that they really like me, I can actually believe it and start to calm down. The logic, however, is totally skewed in that one will never find internal peace by asking for it from someone else; instead, you need to figure out how to soothe yourself before you focus on how someone else feels about you.

While no two self-destructive individuals are alike, all self-destructive men and women have this in common: They don’t have faith that they are completely lovable. They don’t completely love themselves, usually because they didn’t get consistent and soothing loving behavior from parents or authority figures when they were young.

Simply having a self-destructive streak is not a death sentence. Though you may struggle with the impulse to act out for many more years, you can control the expression of those thoughts by not giving into all of your impulses! Taking my kid gloves off, I can tell you it’s as simple as this: Stop engaging in stupid behaviors. I know that sounds harsh or insensitive, but sometimes we need to stop sugar-coating things and be honest with ourselves in order to change.

About the Author:

Dr. Seth Meyers has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.