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It’s a cliché in movies. The boss fires the employee, and they reply “you can’t fire me, because I quit”. Similarly, when in a romantic relationship, one person may decide to end it and the other answers the news with “well, I have been thinking about ending this for some time” (whether true or not).

Both of these replies should be unwarranted and effectively meaningless: the end result is the same. Yet, people often feel this need to “one-up”1 one another. Does this need have a name? And do we have any formal findings (or ongoing research) as to why we have it?

1 Not exactly “one-upping”, since you’re not outdoing the first person — more like preemptively doing what they’re doing, as if life works like a MTG game, and the last thing any of you do is the first to happen.

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Remember when you wanted to do X, and your mother says "do X", and you no longer want to do it? I think it's similar, you don't want to feel as if you are a "loser", or as if you submit to someone. I'm also interested in this cognitive effect and look forward for the detailed answer. –  sindikat Jun 23 at 16:55
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Having the last word? –  blz Jun 23 at 18:37
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How about "post-empting"? –  Wanderlust Jun 24 at 6:25

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I don't know of any term that refers specifically to this sort of counter-offensive reaction to ending a social relationship (be it romantic, professional, or otherwise), but I vaguely recall reading about some theory that distinguished reactions to relational stress as follows: $$\begin{array}{c|c|c|}&\mathbf{Active}&\mathbf{Passive}\\\hline\mathbf{Constructive}&\rm Actively\ constructive&\rm Passively\ constructive\\\hline\mathbf{Destructive}&\rm Actively\ destructive&\rm Passively\ destructive\\\hline\end{array}$$ The reaction in question is actively destructive. A passive alternative would be less decisive / assertive, and either patient / understanding / cooperative (i.e., constructive) or apathetic / pessimistic / negative (i.e., destructive). Sorry I don't have a reference off the top of my head; I think this came from my social psych textbook as an undergrad, but I'm not sure.

As for plausible explanatory constructs, consider:

  • Dominant personality
  • Avoidant or anxious-ambivalent (i.e., insecure) attachment style
  • Needs for power and autonomy
  • Behavioral tendencies involving defensiveness and reactance
    • Certain defense mechanisms may apply depending on whether the person is reacting genuinely or just defensively (and doesn't actually want to end the relationship).
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In exploring why we see this reaction, you already mentioned autonomy. It may be worth it to bear in mind the generalized link between autonomy and happiness for supporting context. The individual on the receiving end of the rejection is having their autonomy challenged because the other person's decision is affecting them significantly, but the outcome is out of their control. –  Ana Hevesi Jun 23 at 22:41
    
@AnaHevesi: yeah, it occurred to me too that autonomy is not quite like the others in my list. Autonomous people are generally healthier, whereas it's not as hard to overdo it on dominance / power motivation / defensiveness, and insecure attachment is hard to frame as even remotely healthy. I suppose this might help explain why even optimally healthy people would experience the same impulse sometimes. The less desirable traits / motives / behaviors imply that, "You can't fire me, I quit!" is a pathological reaction, but I don't think that's fair. Anyone would be stressed given the circumstance –  Nick Stauner Jun 24 at 4:31

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