Why Women Love Assholes: Resurrecting Skinner

The title of this blog is actually misleading. It isn’t just women who love assholes. Men love them too, but we don’t typically refer to women as assholes. I’m not sure why that is, because women can certainly be assholes. But I digress…

I was chatting with one of my girlfriends the other day about her frustrations with the man who holds her interest and attention. It just so happens that I do that quite often, because I have a lot of single girlfriends who have a lot of frustrations with men. After hearing the same basic story 100 times, one begins to notice a pattern. (I’m being sarcastic… I should have figured this out years ago.)  The pattern is that people seem to develop a near obsession with men/women who send them mixed signals. This could look different in every situation, but it all boils down to mixed messages.

There’s the woman who is being seriously pursued by a man, and when she finally sleeps with him, he stops calling her. She becomes (what he considers to be) a crazed, stalking lunatic.

There’s the man who falls in madly in love with a woman who is hot-and-cold towards him. He dotes on her, spends money on her, changes himself when she complains about things he does (leading her to complain about different things). He makes her his priority only to fall farther and farther down on her priority list while he falls deeper and deeper in love.

There’s the woman who says she has “so much fun” with a guy when they’re together, and can’t figure out why he disappears for days at a time. When he reappears, acting as if nothing happened, she, too, will act like nothing happened. She suppresses the urge to show her anger and hurt. Heaven forbid she should call him out! He might avoid her because he doesn’t want to answer for his behavior.

There’s the man who starts dating a woman and things are going wonderfully… when she suddenly decides she’s still in love with her ex. She rekindles the flame with her ex, which obviously dies again. And the original man takes her back with open arms, brushing under the rug his feelings about being her second choice.

Then there are the emotionally unavailable people and the alcoholics who are great… until you stand between them and their booze. It’s as if these “relationships” (I use the term loosely) are holding on by a thread. One partner could care less if the thread breaks while the other is focusing all their energy and attention on making sure it doesn’t. The poor sucker who’s hanging on for dear life looses themselves in the effort, lowers their standards, excuses bad behavior, and forgets to ask one important question:  WHY AM I PUTTING UP WITH THIS SHIT?!

Well I have the answer to the question they’re not asking. Actually B.F. Skinner had the answer, but I’m expanding its usage.  Variable reward schedules.  This could be referring to variable times or variable ratios. Either way, it means that behavior is being reinforced on an unpredictable schedule, and it’s the most effective, most addictive type of reinforcement there is. This schedule of reinforcement is the reason that Vegas exists. It’s the reason that people will sit at a slot machine for hours, feeling their heart beat faster when two cherries line up. “Ahh, so close! I’ll get it next time!”

That’s right people… we are no smarter than Skinner’s rats or Pavlov’s dogs. We are ‘putting up with this shit’ because it’s exciting and addictive. Nevermind how dysfunctional we allow ourselves to be. Nevermind that we are spending the majority of our days thinking about a person who isn’t thinking about us. Nevermind that while we are focused on that person, we are letting amazing people who would make amazing partners slip through our fingers. Nevermind all that. We’re obsessed with waiting for those damn cherries to line up, however improbable! Literally, we’re waiting for someone who clearly doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether we’re in their life or not to suddenly realize that they are in love with us.

I know what you’re thinking. “But that’s not me! The person I’m waiting for told me once, a long time ago, when they were drinking, that they liked me.” Nevermind that they’ve dated 3 other people since that happened, none of which were you. If we’re really honest with ourselves, we’d realize that all things point to the obvious, and it’s time to stop avoiding the obvious.

I should clarify a few things. I have actually been on both sides of the “asshole” coin, so I can say with certainty that sometimes you wind up being the asshole when that is exactly the opposite of your intention. For example, maybe you meet someone who you like initially and you invest some time getting to know. But no sparks fly, no deep feelings develop, and you quite simply don’t think about them very often. When you do, the thoughts are positive, and you might drop them a line to let them know you’re thinking of them. Or you might send a cute text message like “I’m remembering how nice your kiss felt…”  And your well-intentioned shout-out makes their day! But then they don’t cross your mind again for a while, and their daily messages to you become irritating. You are suddenly the asshole, and there’s no easy way out. Take that a few steps further and recall a time when you just simply fell out of love with someone. Your displays of affection for them fade away, leaving them confused and desperate to regain the rewards you once gave them. Now you’re really the asshole, because no matter how carefully you handle the situation, you’re going to hurt someone you really don’t want to hurt.

On the other hand, some people have mastered the art of the psychological yo-yo, and they can and will use this power to their own advantage at the expense of others. But it does no good to hate them. Rest assured that they are living lonely, empty lives, which is a far worse punishm…. Oh who am I kidding?  I’d punch ‘em all in the face.

Back to variable reward schedules…

You’ve all heard the saying “the definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result.”  I propose that repeating the same behavior and getting a different result is precisely what causes insanity. You put a nickel in a gumball machine and it spits out a gumball. You put $100 on red at a Roulette table, and you have no idea the outcome, lucky underwear be damned! But the knowledge that sometimes they’ll be rewarded keeps people throwing their money down. By the same token, knowing that sometimes they’ll receive the attention, love, validation they’re seeking from that one person will keep them coming back for more and more emotional punishment. (Sadly, this is the reason that kids with a mom or dad who gave them varying degrees of approval or attention wind up approval-seeking for the rest of their lives.)

Variable reward schedules produce behavior that is VERY resistant to extinction. In other words, it’s really tough to stop yourself from doing the thing that sometimes gets you the reward you’re looking for. Have you ever fought with yourself over whether or not to call or text someone? Have you ever checked your email 20 times/day (before email was synchronized to phones)? Have you ever slept with your phone in your hand? Carried it from room to room with you, looking at it every few minutes to see if the “new message” light is blinking? I have. I’ve been addicted to the reward before. Addicted to a person. And I can say from experience that even when I know that my thought process is irrational and my behavior is dysfunctional, it is still difficult to make myself stop.

I wish I had some magical words of advice for everyone who falls into the trap so cleverly laid by variable reward daters, but I don’t. All we can do is recognize it and do our best to break the habit. Walk away from the slot machine! We just might find a flavor of gumball that beats all others and fall in love with the gumball machine. It’s pretty awesome to know that you can always count on it being there when you need it.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ginger
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 05:22:46

    ‘Without the past, we could not value the future. …’

    My favorite’s

    ‘In small measures, life may perfect be.’

    Keep pondering , Love from Aunt Ginger


  2. pamelablair
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 16:15:39

    Hi Ginger! Both are very true. I will never stop pondering 🙂 I look forward to lunch at the coffee shop with you next time I’m home. Love you.


  3. Samuel
    Jul 03, 2011 @ 15:16:06

    my prescription for any addiction:

    turn your back on it.

    I have not always executed this technique as well as I needed to.


  4. Relationship Diva
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 11:26:50

    Loved this!!! Great read! It’s amazing how when you’re going through it, as a woman, you feel so alone and like you’re the only one. Then you suddenly find out that it’s not just you and it makes you feel better and discouraged all at the same time. Because that means there’s more of “them” out there than you thought. LOL!


  5. dasefx35
    Jan 11, 2012 @ 06:07:48

    love your writings, and all this time I thought you were just a muscle laden gym beauty. Who knew? Actually that would be a lie, I figured you would transcend even my lofty expectations…nicely done.


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