A question I am frequently asked by female clients is "Why do I find it so difficult to leave a man who I know is poison?" These are often intelligent, accomplished, self-sufficient women who simply can't understand why there's a disconnect between what they rationally know and emotionally feel. (This happens to men too of course, but apparently less often.)
So what is it about the men these women are drawn to like moths to a flame? And why would a woman stay with a man who repeatedly behaves in ways she would never tolerate from anyone else?
I see the problem in terms of addiction. First, let's define addiction. An addiction is an obsession which can only be relieved by acting on a compulsion. For instance, a cocaine addict is obsessed with getting the next "hit" which causes the compulsion to obtain it, no matter how irrational she knows drug use to be and regardless of the consequences. This is exactly the pattern I observe in my female clients who are in horrible relationships they can't leave. For example, a lover does not call when he says he will. She can think of nothing else but when he'll call and she feels miserable until he does (if he does). In other words, nothing can remove her suffering but the very person who is causing it, just like nothing but heroin can cure the misery of an addict in withdrawal.
Let's examine an example of a man to whom women typically become addicted. What are the qualities and characteristics that make him so compelling? In general, these tend to be men with a high degree of narcissism. Narcissistic people have certain characteristics in common: they are utterly selfish, need tons of admiration, have a poor ability to empathize with others, and are "flexible" with the truth. They also tend to be charming, seductive and exciting. Now what happens when a woman is pursued by such a man? Usually, he tells her everything that she has always wanted to hear, that she is beautiful and wonderful in every conceivable way. Her first mistake is to believe him, but she does not yet know who she's dealing with. What she probably feels is very flattered and excited. Here is a man who finally appreciates her for who she is. Except he doesn't. Being a master manipulator, he knows what she wants to hear. He also knows how to create uncertainty and fear by acting in ways that belie his flattery; in other words, he knows how to give her withdrawal symptoms!
She starts to notice certain things. For one, he is opaque. She starts to catch him in little lies, which she rationalizes away. She starts to feel anxiety and is flooded with relief when he seems to have a good explanation or excuse. He doesn't call or show up when he says he will. Again she is flooded with anxiety. She will probably start to wonder about her own desirability. Maybe he is losing interest? But then he calls and explains that he had an emergency. Relief washes over her. The lies and excuses will escalate and he may start to treat her disrespectfully and even cruelly, but by now his "love" is the only thing that matters. She has become addicted
Recent scientific evidence proves that love addiction is not just a psychological but a neurochemical problem. PET cans and MRIs show that the brains of people looking at pictures of their lovers light up in the same places as a person taking cocaine. So love addiction is not just a metaphor.
HOW TO BREAK FREE
The first step is to become aware of this hopeless cycle of misery. True, the high she gets when he seems interested is wonderful...but it is minuscule when compared to the deep valleys of despair with which she pays for that high. She must also realize that she has, bit by bit, given another person the power over her self-esteem. In other words, she has allowed someone else to determine how she feels in her RELATIONSHIP WITH HERSELF. Why is this important?
Because the relationship we each have with ourselves is THE MOST important relationship in our lives. It is the relationship from which all others stem. If you are unable to treat yourself with compassion and respect, why would you expect to be treated that way by anyone else? If you behave as if your own needs come last, then others will accommodate you by ignoring your needs. So, for instance, if our hypothetical love addict does not object when her date is 2 hours late, she is clearly telling him that she is fine being treated with utter disregard.
The second step is to really work to understand that OTHER PEOPLE"S BEHAVIOR IS ABOUT THEM AND NOT YOU. Many people seem to take personally what is not about them at all. For instance, back to our love addict, she might interpret her boyfriend's failure to call when he said he would as evidence of her lack of desirability rather than what it really is: irresponsibility, rudeness, and lack of regard for her feelings. These are HIS character defects, not HERS. Yet instead of feeling angry and setting firmer boundaries ("I expect you to call when you say you will"), she tries harder to please this jerk.
If you are struggling with this issue, try this exercise:
Each time you feel badly in reaction to someone else's behavior, ask yourself what the behavior says about the other person instead of you. Then ask yourself how you would have behaved under the same circumstances.You may start to realize that everyone has choices about how they behave in any given situation and that the choices one makes are not determined by anyone but the person making them.
Then, try making a list of qualities you admire in a person and compare that to a list of qualities your love interest has. Do they line up?
Thirdly, write down what you would advise your best friend to do if she were involved in a similar relationship.
Engaging in this process is a valuable start to getting free of a toxic relationship. A good therapist can help you.