Recently I wrote about women who were attracted to the wrong men, and I discussed one woman in particular that I knew who was drawn to a criminal. I received so many comments about that short article that I decided to write a slightly more in-depth sequel, asking the question “Why?” Why do perfectly intelligent, often well-educated, decent women who deserve so much better fall for men who are abusive? Worse, why do they stay?
In the 90s, the explanation was battered women’s syndrome. The women had been psychologically tortured and beaten down to such an extent that they were no longer able to make good decisions. They were afraid of their abusers, and often stayed for financial reasons or to keep the family together. Some of this may still be true but it doesn’t cover all women by a long shot, and it doesn’t get into the psychological factors that drew them to the wrong men in the first place.
What could possibly make a bad-ass boy look good? Well, to begin with, sexual chemistry is paramount. We can’t really help who we’re attracted to – it’s just automatic. What we would hope is that if we find ourselves attracted to someone who may harm us, we’ll have an internal alarm that says, “no way!” And then we’ll lose interest. But some women don’t have that alarm. The bad boy is sexually appealing, perhaps because he acts more overtly sexual; he may be more flirtatious, charming or lustful. He may make the woman feel wanted physically in a way that other men don’t because he doesn’t mind crossing lines.
The bad boy’s behavior may start out being something minor. Perhaps he just seems nonconventional. He’s not afraid of authority. He bends the rules or makes his own, so he comes across looking like an alpha male when in fact he’s just defiant or self-centered.
Some men are drawn to the chase and often prefer a woman who plays hard to get or acts like a bitch (and men are also abused. Domestic violence statistics now reflect an almost equal number of men being hit or hurt physically or emotionally by their partners, although women continue to be more likely to be seriously injured or hospitalized by male violence, largely because of their smaller physical size. Similarly, women can attack each other. Same-sex relationships have equal amounts of domestic battering, much to our surprise.) Even though they may deny that this is true, some women have the same tendencies to go for that guy who appears distant or unavailable. None of us is particularly interested in a drooling puppy dog or anyone who comes across as even remotely desperate or lonely. If a man acts aloof, or is very attentive sometimes but standoffish and distant other times, the healthy response is to think, “This guy is definitely not for me.” The unhealthy response is to start humming “I’m Going to Make You Love Me” by Diana Ross and the Supremes.
At times, the man may not appear dangerous at all. Instead, he might look wounded. He was abused in childhood, he was never understood, he was mistreated and victimized. She will save him, rescue him, be the one who understands when no one else did. This misguided, albeit well-intentioned, approach doesn't work either because often the victimized become the victimizers. And our sympathy stops there; we feel terrible for the little boy who was beaten by his father, but we only feel anger towards the grown-up man who repeats the cycle.
Talking about childhood wounds, many people firmly believe that women choose partners based on the kind of relationship that they had with their father, or the role modeling effect that their parents had on them. Thus, if someone was neglected, mistreated, criticized or worse, she will choose a mate who treats her exactly the same way, in a futile effort to repeat this cycle and have it come out right this time. Although I would never minimize the effect of bad parenting and resulting low self-esteem, I don’t buy into such strictly Freudian notions. I’ve seen far too many families that have two girls, raised almost identically (regardless of positive or negative family dynamics) but they turn out completely different; one girl opts for a straight and narrow path with a good decent guy and the other one is drawn to the fire.
Certainly, childhood has a profound effect on our lives, but so do our early dating experiences, live-in arrangements and marriages, biology, and other innate or acquired behaviors.
What can we do when a man has already hit a woman or injured her the way Chris Brown hurt Rihanna? Those of us watching that sad drama unfold kept rooting for her to leave him and stay away. “Don’t go back,” I was shouting at the TV. “Press charges! I don’t care if he’s 19 years old. He’s probably not going to change.” But no matter how hard I yelled, she couldn’t hear me.
This may be true of the women in your life. In my last post, I said speak up if one of your friends or family members is involved with someone who could seriously harm them, but that’s not always effective. We can talk until we’re blue in the face but adults will do what they want to do. Women don’t leave for many reasons. Aside from obstacles with money or children or actually fearing for their physical safety (which is not extremely common, by the way. It is unlikely that your male partner will murder you like my friend Louise. She was killed by a man who had already been in jail for killing another woman so he was a criminal. And women are not killed in huge numbers by their partners. This is a misconception.)
The main reason that a woman stays with a guy who hits her is that she still loves him. She remembers when he was different and when things were good between the two of them. He begs on bended knees for forgiveness, and tells her it will never happen again. She wants to believe him because she wants it to work out between the two of them, even when the rest of us can see that’s not gonna happen! And that he never was the guy that she thought he was early on in their relationship because he was only putting his best fake foot forward.
All of this is compounded if either party uses drugs or alcohol to access. Drinking and drugging impair our judgment, and predispose women to choosing men who also drink and get high – a great pair. Two people who aren’t thinking right and who’re living in a purple haze. Drugs act as great disinhibitors and if a guy has any violent tendencies, whatever control he had over them is likely to lapse when he’s drinking too much.
When a woman can’t or won’t leave an obviously dangerous situation, I think the best way to treat that is the way we do with addiction. Loudly and strongly voice opposition to the behavior, but offer warm and loving support to the person. Condemn the act, but let that friend or sister know that you’ll be there for her to help her get out of the quicksand. Have a family intervention or a group of friends get together and tell this person that she’s putting herself in harm’s way. Recommend a good counselor to help her work through her issues related to relationships in general, all of which will be very individual.
And remember, it’s not her fault -- blame is futile. It’s judgmental and helps no one -- but it is definitely her responsibility to get out of a toxic relationship. And if we love her, we’ll extend our hand and stand by her every step of the way.
Sigrid Macdonald is a book coach, book editor and the author of two books, including her novel about women who fall for the wrong men – D’Amour Road. Visit her at http://damourroad.blogspot.com.