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Can you really be addicted to a certain kind of sadness?
November 4, 2012 7:39 AM   Subscribe

Can you really be addicted to a certain kind of sadness? Ugh...I hate that song. My boyfriend has serious intimacy issues but is trying to work on them. I feel intermittently insecure/frustrated/sad/angry and I don't know how much longer I can take it...

Backstory: dated a guy from college through my mid-twenties. Great guy, though lots of trouble early on - first real relationship for both of us. Moved together to attend grad school but he was incredibly depressed and had been for years and we'd started drifting apart, not being physically intimate, etc. I broke up with him, had a rebound, which I'm not proud of as the guy was a really good guy and I hurt him a lot. Then I met someone I fell totally and completely in love with. He had...a lot of problems, though. Untreated bipolar, manipulative, not very nice to the point where he was certainly emotionally abusive. We lasted 2.5 years, much of it long distance and it really killed my self-esteem. He finally broke up with me (just as I was defending my dissertation proposal and moving to a new city to do my dissertation research, so that was rough) but we stayed in touch off and on for another 9 months because he wanted to be friends and I couldn't let go.

Then I finally decided I couldn't handle it anymore and went no contact for real. I didn't tell him, I just did it. Since the breakup I'd dated a little, but nothing could stick. Right before I finally ended contact, I started hanging out with this guy I liked quite a bit. He was fun and funny and personable but he had this air of sadness and, imo, hidden depths. Turns out he'd been recently dumped by a women who'd strung him a long for over a year, including periods of actually being together. I know this woman and she's actually pretty cool...just emotionally unavailable. So the guy and I started hanging out, having deep, emotional conversations about our pasts and our issues. Admittedly, mostly we talked about him.

Eventually we hooked up and it was pretty good. Then he went cold and distant. For a month. Then we hooked up again and the deep conversations ramped up and we started doing really fun things together. It's been on and off for a year now, even though we currently live in different cities. And it's been pretty bad. He's a borderline alcoholic, clinically depressed (though treating it), hates his job and his life though actually his life is really pretty good. He makes a lot of money, he's in good shape, he has great friends though he keeps them at a distance and has a tendency to lash out at the closest ones whenever he's drunk. I've been the recipient of the worst of the lashing out. He's gotten black-out drunk and called me names, he's lied to me and lied to his friends about me and probably worst of all, we had somewhat unprotected sex for many months before he told me he had herpes (I didn't get it, though that doesn't really make it any better).

All along he's said he's not ready for a relationship, he can't handle a relationship, he's not sure he loves me, as he's never been able to love anyone, he's not yet over his divorce of 7 years ago, he has abandonment issues because he's adopted, etc. Listen to people when they tell you who they are/what they want. I know. Of course, whenever I'd back off, he'd chase me, hard, sucking me back in with some weird combination of his pain and misery and ability to make me laugh.

He has strung me along, no question. He wants me and loves being with me but he's so messed up (he says) and isn't sure he'll ever be capable of a real relationship. Yet things have gotten much better recently. He's much more open about the fact that we're seeing each other (he used to hide a lot of our interactions from his friends), he always responds to texts/emails/chats/calls (though he still doesn't initiate all that much), he's generous and sweet when I visit him, and, most importantly, I think, he says he really wants to work on his intimacy and communication issues. He says it. But I'm not sure he's really doing it. It's still excruciatingly hard to have any conversation that touches on emotions with him. He just gets defensive and withdraws.

He depends on me very much for emotional support and I depend on him for...I don't know. I don't know what I get out of this or why I've stuck with it for so long. He's funny and can be sweet and he's good in bed and a great cook. He obviously does care about me when he's not being incredibly selfish and self-centered. He tells me I'm one of the smartest, most interesting people he's ever met, which has been really nice to hear, given the way my emotionally abusive ex would constantly put me down (he was a a professor, I'm still a lowly phd student...but mostly he was just an unkind, unhappy person). But current ex is not intellectually curious, he refuses to ever initiate plans (though he'll latch onto other people's), he's lived in one place his whole life, has never gone on a trip alone, he says he wants to do more than exercise and get drunk most nights with his friends...but he doesn't.

So what's my problem? Why is it so hard to let go of an alcoholic 38-year old who's caused me so much pain? Am I just emotionally unavailable myself? My 3 most significant relationships have all been with people with serious problems being emotionally open and generally a tendency towards serious depression, which should perhaps tell me something. But I love him, I really do. Maybe I'm addicted to the intermittent positive responses or to the signs of progress, tiny and incremental as they are. I don't know. All I do know is that I'm really frustrated with him and with myself and I need to do something about it.

Thank you.
posted by entropy33 to Human Relations (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I know you have to see this coming but--DTMFA. A 38-year-old anything probably won't change, but an alcoholic who causes you pain?? Come on, no! Life is too short and precious to waste it on this dude lest you end up like him. You can and will do better. Others will probably recommend counseling.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 7:52 AM on November 4, 2012


Trust me when I say that it's not supposed to be this hard—and when it's right, it won't be.

Also trust me when I say that I know from experience how easy it is to stay in this sort of downward spiral of relationships. The longer it goes on, the more you lose your self respect, and the harder it feels to escape. Leave this behind, literally sit down and make a list of what you need (not want, although that's important too) out of a partner, and do not, under any circumstances, settle for less.

Hang in there. You can do this. It can get better. It will.
posted by divisjm at 8:04 AM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


A part of you seems to want us to tell you that maybe this guy isn't so bad, and that your love might change this middle aged alcoholic who isn't over a 7 year old divorce, but we all know better.

Your insticts are telling you that this dude is plainly inadequate as a partner for you, and you'll likely get a lot of excellent advice to this question from folks who have had similar strings of inadequate partners before. Really I hope we can convince you to not only carefully and calculatedly DTMFA, but also to trust your instincts and then think through them like you are here. Women in particular are generally socialized to not trust their instincts, to devalue them, and to consider them irrational. This only serves one purpose, to make women more vulnerable and manipulate-able.

Maybe try online dating?
posted by Blasdelb at 8:17 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


current ex

I think this formulation sums up your cognitive dissonance about all these relationships. Wouldn't it be good to be in a relationship without this much conflict simply about the idea of being in a relationship?
posted by BibiRose at 8:27 AM on November 4, 2012


...he's lied to me and lied to his friends about me and probably worst of all, we had somewhat unprotected sex for many months before he told me he had herpes (I didn't get it, though that doesn't really make it any better).

I stopped reading here. This is the reddest fucking flag in the world. What on earth made you willing to forgive this and continue to see this man? Please start taking better care of yourself; dumping the motherfucking asshole would be a great first step.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:33 AM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


Someone who isn't over a divorce from seven years ago is using that divorce to protect themselves from... something. In this case, he's protecting himself from you. You also seem to be spending all your time together talking and thinking about him, which doesn't seem very mutual to me. So, you are hoping for a happy life with a narcissistic, passive, alcoholic guy with a serious STD who won't face the world and get on with life, and, apparently, expects you to be the grown-up? I mean, I suppose it's possible, but, yeah.

As for your question about whether it's possible to get addicted to sadness? I am not sure that addiction is the right term, but I think you can get habituated to certain kinds of negative interactions, which give you a little jolt of positive feeling, and, in the absence of more positive emotions is easily mistaken for pleasure.

So, step 1. Get out of this relationship. Step 2. Get some therapy. Not necessarily anything open-ended -- you want some tools for helping you identify the toxic relationships that attract you (you seem a big chunk of the way there) and developing strategies for not giving in to the attraction. Your brain is only partly your friend at the moment, and you need to get it fully on your side.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:35 AM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


He depends on me very much for emotional support and I depend on him for...I don't know. I don't know what I get out of this or why I've stuck with it for so long

If he's getting everything out if it, and you're getting nothing but problems, then it's a terrible relationship, and you'd be better off without him.
posted by xingcat at 8:38 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


One more thing. He says he wants to work on his problems, but that's worth exactly nothing. The only time we have is the immediate moment, and spending that moment talking about how you want to change is a great way to make sure you never change. Basically, he's not going to change.

All along he's said he's not ready for a relationship, he can't handle a relationship, he's not sure he loves me, as he's never been able to love anyone,

These are not explanations, these are excuses, engineered to give him cover for his bad behavior. I said this in an early AskMe, and I stand by it.

I guess that's actually two things, but they both point toward "get out and figure out how to identify these kind of relationships and avoid them."
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:51 AM on November 4, 2012


Speaking from experience and observation, I think that most often, a tendency to gravitate to relationships with psychologically damaged or wounded, "needy" people is an expression of the false hope that someone will single oneself out for such a role. It's a hope because fixing oneself is very difficult. But it's false because it's a magic wand solution, not based in reality. People ultimately have to work through their internal issues, and the only way to do that is to take ownership of them. Before that occurs, it is literally impossible to provide help at the essential level. Energy expended attempted to do so will be sucked up and used for other purposes, most prevalently reinforcing the illusion of being in desperate need of external help. That's how the cycle manifests and maintains itself.

Deep underneath it all, both parties know that they're perpetuating a cycle rather than resolving it, but it's the fear of confronting their own core issues directly that keeps them clinging to the other, trying to create something functional from shipwreck remnants of their pasts, wishing fervently that the purity and intensity of their desire can somehow make the dream become real for them, and eddying round and round rather than getting back in the current and swimming downstream.

Aside from this pattern failing the "provider" in such relationships, it is also a form of dishonesty to the "needy" person because the "provider" is really using them as a self-proxy, and not really dealing with them as who they actually are.

If this is such a case, then what's wrong with you may be that you're distracting yourself from attending to your own pain, healing your own wounds, and learning to meet your own needs.

What happens when you aren't in an intimate relationship for a while? Are you able to be happy on your own? If not, working on that may be a very good place to begin.
posted by perspicio at 9:30 AM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


I just wanted to return to this thread to go through some of the expectations he has managed to groom you into accepting,
"...as a tendency to lash out at the closest ones whenever he's drunk. I've been the recipient of the worst of the lashing out. He's gotten black-out drunk and called me names..."
Not OK, period. This kind of habit pretty instantly disqualifies pretty much anyone from being reasonably considered a healthy partner. He has gotten you to not only accept his alcoholism, but his using his alcoholism as an excuse to lash out at you. Not OK at all. You deserve so much better.
"... he's lied to me and lied to his friends about me and probably worst of all, we had somewhat unprotected sex for many months before he told me he had herpes (I didn't get it, though that doesn't really make it any better)."
All of these things are massive flags the size and hue of plaza Lenin is stuffed under. This man plainly places no meaningful value in either your safety or your autonomy and those are the most basic of possible elements in any concievable kind of relationship much less an intimate romantic one. He is also an adult capable of making decisions for himself and not only has he made inexcusable decisions that hurt you, but can be reasonably expected to continue doing so. You deserve so much better.
"All along he's said he's not ready for a relationship, he can't handle a relationship, he's not sure he loves me, as he's never been able to love anyone, he's not yet over his divorce of 7 years ago, he has abandonment issues because he's adopted, etc. Listen to people when they tell you who they are/what they want. I know" ... "He has strung me along, no question. He wants me and loves being with me but he's so messed up (he says) and isn't sure he'll ever be capable of a real relationship."
Here, having already demonstrated with his actions how fundamentally incapable he is of being a loving and supporting partner, he is telling you staight up. You do believe him right? Could he concievably be wrong? He is making sure that you understand that not only is he currently an inexcusably shitty partner, but that he has no intention of ever not being an inexcusably shitty partner in the future. This is active grooming behavior. You deserve so much better.
"Of course, whenever I'd back off, he'd chase me, hard, sucking me back in with some weird combination of his pain and misery and ability to make me laugh."
He has absolutely no right to your love, attention, or proximity as a punching bag. As butthurt as he might get, you have a right to your own safety and autonomy that he has both demonstrated and admitted to not being able to respect. If his stories of abandonment are even true, they do not grant this man anything like a right to treat you the way he already has and will no doubt continue to. If you do want him out of your life, escalate. Tell him he is not welcome, and if he tries to make himself welcome anyway call the police. You deserve so much better.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:36 AM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


Plenty of people have already give you the excellent advice to let go of this guy, so I won't repeat it.

It does seem that you have a bit of a pattern with the people you select for relationships.

How is your relationship with your parents? Did you have a needy parent? A distant parent? I think it's true that even if we consciously do not want to recreate our relationships with our parents we tend to gravitate towards people who dance the dance that we know and understand from childhood. I'll avoid the cliche of telling you to seek therapy. But one way or another, I think it will help you to try to find a way to recognize the early red flags and avoid them. And learn to recognize the stable, emotionally present, safe people with whom you can have successful relationships.
posted by bunderful at 10:09 AM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


The question seems to be not so much "should I dump this guy?" (I'm convinced you've convinced yourself in your head that that's the right thing to do) but rather "why is it so hard, and why do I keep falling into these types of unhealthy relationships? With the corollary of: why did I wind up sabotaging the one relationship I had with a really good guy (and I suspect that there's more to that than the mere fact that it was a rebound relationship).

The idea of "intermittent reinforcement" has been borrowed from behavioral psychology. In tests with lab animals, behavioral psychologists found that if the animal receives a reward every time it performs the desired behavior (e.g., rat presses on target bar, gets food reward) it will learn the behavior pretty quickly but then eventually reach satiety and stop performing the behavior. On the other hand, if after an initial training period with a steady reward the experimenter switches to a system of intermittent rewards (sometimes when the rat presses the bar, it gets a food reward, and sometimes it doesn't) the animal will be more persistent and obsessed with performing the target behavior in hopes of getting a reward.

It's also the same cognitive mechanism that drives some people to become addicted to slot machines: you put in your money, pull the lever, and most of the time you don't get what you want in return. But every now and then, you do get back more than you put in, and once in a great while you get back a whole bunch more than you put in.

You keep plugging nickels into these guys who don't have their shit together by giving of yourself in the relationship. At the very beginning you probably get a decent payoff most of the time, enough to keep you at it. Then, over time, you raise your stakes to dimes and quarters and dollars, and the payoffs are fewer and farther apart, but maybe they are bigger when you do get lucky. Add to that the "sunk cost" fallacy where you believe that you can't just give up on this slot-machine of a relationship, because dammit you did plug a lot of money into it and if you just bide your time there's a possibility you'll come out even or even ahead of the game but if you walk away now it's all been a waste.

In contrast we have the "really good guy" who you hurt a lot. It's not quite as exciting and dramatic if you put something into a relationship and you get something back out of it, predictably, each and every time. So you sabotaged that one.

If you're still a PhD student and can get counseling through your school, I would recommend you get some guidance there. It's interesting that you frame the problem with these guys as them not being sufficiently "emotionally open/available"--as if merely being more emotionally open would have made Prof. Emotional Abuser an OK partner, or as if the real problem with Mr. Alcoholic Stick-in-the-Mud is that he's not "emotionally available." No. A guy that doesn't have his shit together but who is emotionally open about it is not any improvement.
posted by drlith at 10:42 AM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


YOU are the common denominator in each of these relationships (after all, you select these broken, effed-up people). And YOU deserve so much better. I encourage you to get the hell out of this situation, then take some time to focus on YOURSELF, your needs, your desires, your broken parts, your wishes, your values. Keep honing in on you until the right person comes along...and they will, because when we love ourselves first and well, more love comes. I promise.
posted by mynameisluka at 10:45 AM on November 4, 2012


It sounds as if you don't have any significant gaps in your dating history - make one now. Dump this guy and take a chunk of time out to yourself to be with yourself, to work out who you want to be and to work out who you want to be with.
posted by heyjude at 12:54 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


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