The Fixodent to Her Wooden Teeth
September 7, 2010 1:40 PM   Subscribe

Why am I always drawn towards people I can "fix," and how do I stop?

My dating blackbook could double for a cliff's notes version of the DSM-IV.

While there's a wide breadth of the different types I've been with, the only real consistent variable is: me. What is it about me that allows myself to keep falling into these futile, chaotic, self-destructive relationships? And what sorts of checks and balances have worked for those with my predilection?

(I'm currently checking my options to see a DBT specialist.)
posted by Mach3avelli to Human Relations (19 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Try looking into codependency and Codependents Anonymous.
posted by elsietheeel at 1:49 PM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

You remember, I am sure, the old joke asking how many therapists it takes to change a lightbulb, the answer being it takes just one, but only if the lightbulb wants to change. Some people can be fixed, but only if they sincerely want to be. It is always presumptuous to try to help someone who has not asked for help (even to the very petty extent that many people will resent being informed of a spelling error - if I wanted you to proofread my work I would have asked!)

Perhaps you have a sense of being a person of exceptional wisdom and insight, who is in a particularly good position to help others to understand what is wrong with themselves and what they can do about it. This could even be true (although I don't know you well enough to say). If you were to become a professional psychotherapist, you would be able to exercise that particular ability. All of your clients would be people who actually came to you seeking your help.

But in terms of your personal relationships, just remind yourself any time this impulse arises, that you cannot help people who have not asked for your help (with, of course, certain exceptions; you can still pull someone out of the way of an oncoming vehicle that he or she failed to notice for some reason - there is not enough time to engage in a discussion to find out whether your help is wanted).

There is sometimes an advantage to having flawed friends; they may be more willing to forgive your own flaws. But even that is not always the case. People are often hypocrites, and they demand of others a degree of perfection that they would never demand from themselves. So it is risky to choose friends on this basis - as you seem to have discovered. So just learn from your mistakes.
posted by grizzled at 1:55 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Learn to accept people as they are.
posted by Doohickie at 1:58 PM on September 7, 2010

One problem is you're 28 and you're dating (or recently were dating) an 18-year-old girl. (Yes, "girl.")

Now, I know that someone is going to come along and say: "Age difference doesn't matter -- there's nothing wrong with a 10-year age difference."

But notice what I'm saying here. I'm not saying there's something wrong with a 10-year age difference. I'm saying I've read your last two questions and I think in your particular case, in this particular relationship, the age difference is a huge deal. I'm not doubting that some people are in good relationships with a 10 or more year age gap, but it doesn't seem to be working well for you. You don't have enough in common with her, and you (understandably) have a hard time knowing how to deal with it when she acts so erratically.

Try dating someone around your own age. This is not a panacea, just an idea.
posted by John Cohen at 2:04 PM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is that actually the only variable? I ask because there's a BIG difference between "only interested in fixer-uppers" vs. "dates fixer-uppers because it's comfortable and/or they're easiest to catch" vs. "dates fixer-uppers because non-broken people aren't interested in them."
posted by Pufferish at 2:04 PM on September 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

Not to be facile but perhaps a first step would be to think of this in terms of "Why am I always drawn towards people I can cannot "fix?"
posted by Morrigan at 2:15 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know someone who perpetually dated fixer-uppers. They figured out with the last one that they were trying to avoid people who were controlling, because that is a type they tend to attract. They thought (wrongly as it turns out) that a person with big problems couldn't be controlling. They realized they need to avoid controlling people and fixer uppers.
posted by zinfandel at 2:16 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

First of all, I believe this is a normal urge in some men.

I used to be you. I can't tell you why you are like this, but perhaps my own experiences might shed some light?

I have White Knight Syndrome. (Official site) Much more here. Also see Balanced Rescuer by the same authors.

At least, I used to. I dated a number of women (pretty much everyone I dated before I met my wife) who were self-destructive, and/or who had experienced terrible, awful things in their pasts. Rape, suicide attempts, abuse in various forms, eating disorders, psychological problems (diagnosed and undiagnosed), etc. The relationships failed, one after another. I put myself through pure hell.

There are many reasons why you might be drawn to such people. I was initially drawn to these women not because I wanted to help them but instead because I felt a kinship. They understood me, you see. They knew from personal experience what I had dealt with in my own childhood, or a previous relationship. They could relate. They understood my idiosyncracies because theirs were similar. It became an ongoing endless perpetuated cycle. I would date women who were abusive and had once been victims themselves. This enforced my own life experiences as someone who had been and continued to be abused. I would do my best to help them. Often, that was reciprocated. And then the relationship would fall apart for one reason or another.

I learned over time that my own lack of self-esteem and a tendency to avoid my own problems had a lot to do with why I was attracted to such women. I wanted to be their savior. I wanted to help lift them out of whatever emotional hell they had been put through and help them turn their lives around. I wanted to feel needed, loved and helpful. And I was doing my best to take on another person's issues because I couldn't face or deal with my own.

Checks and balances:

I started seeking women who weren't interested in drama. This was *hugely* important.

My wife has a reasonably phlegmatic temperment. I know that when I wake up next to her in the morning I don't have to be afraid of what kind of mood I'm going to find her in. She's not prone to wild, out of proportion emotional outbursts, crying at the drop of the hat, paranoia or angry accusations. She's calmer and more reasonable and patient than anyone I ever dated. It took me years to get used to. Drama for drama's sake isn't normal. It's highly destructive. Beware of it.

I started looking for women who were a little more mentally mature. How did they handle themselves in a crisis? Did they place things in proper perspective? This links back to the drama problem.

I started placing a really high premium on honesty and open communication. This is unbelievably important for a healthy relationship. Everyone has secrets and private lives, of course. But the women I used to date were especially secretive. They lied to their parents and friends. At least one or two took pride in the idea that they were enigmatic or difficult to read. I took that as a warning sign.

Eventually, I joined ACOA. Why? Because I happened upon the traits list here and suddenly realized that I fit the profile. My parents didn't drink. But my home life growing up created the same environment. If I had still been dating when I found that list, I probably would have used it as a guideline of behaviors to keep an eye on in women I dated. Because two people with those same traits tend to reinforce each other.

Good luck. Feel free to memail me if you have questions. If I remember anything else, I'll comment again.
posted by zarq at 2:21 PM on September 7, 2010 [27 favorites]

You've really already taken the first step: That moment when you go, "HEY. I don't want to do this anymore." Not only that, you've identified a pattern --fixer uppers. Now where you need to go is committing not to ride that bus anymore.

I remember exactly what it felt like when I realized that, as hot & sexy as I find the "heroine chic" look, I have no interest in keeping up with/trying to live the lifestyle of druggies. It took an act of will to re-direct my interest to people who didn't "instantly" attract me like this group does, but the benefits were *totally* worth it.

So: Don't like the fixer-upper lifestyle? Try to tune your radar in to people who are a little more drama-free. You may find yourself going "myehh...not really my style," at first, but take the trouble to acquire the taste. Your life will be richer in ways you can't yet imagine.

In the meantime: Yeah, co-dependency & therapy are things to explore. Usually it's something in YOU that leaves you attracted to this kind of person. Fix the disconnect in your head, and you'll magically find that this kind of train wreck is oh-so-much-less-interesting.
posted by Ys at 2:23 PM on September 7, 2010

Read this book:

Codependent no More by Melody Beattie.
IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE and you'll never again will be drawn towards people you can fix.
posted by zulo at 2:25 PM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Fix yourself. (not that I know what's wrong with you, other than a need to be with someone who requires fixing)
Realize that you are good enough to deserve someone that does not require fixing (back to fixing yourself).
And what Morrigan said (and use that to fix yourself).

And if you still feel the need to help people out, do some volunteer work with people who need help.
posted by Neekee at 2:27 PM on September 7, 2010

Plus, it's unfair of you to enter into a relationship with someone who needs "fixing". Love them/get involved with them for who they are, not what you hope they might become. It's very hurtful to be on the receiving end of such affection, no matter how well intended the significant other is.
posted by Neekee at 2:30 PM on September 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

Your question confuses me some. Have you really had a series of relationships where the other person had/turned out to have severe diagnosed psychiatric problems? Is your goal to stop doing that? And you're looking into DBT therapy for yourself? Why DBT, specifically? Come to that, is there some reason why your post seems to have so much clinical framework?

Leaving all that aside, if you just want to know why you have an urge to fix people, well I think that's incredibly common. One of my best friends was in rehab for drug addiction three times and tells me he spent each stint-- while half dead from his own drug problem--trying to be a caretaker for the other patients around him. He tells me that with a laugh, but he still does it with every single relationship he's in. Yeah, you might be codependent or there might be some other term for it, but what is it that you actually want to change here?
posted by BibiRose at 2:31 PM on September 7, 2010

Seconding "Codependent No More". Great book that has really been helping me with similar issues (that in my case lead to a bad marriage and then divorce)
posted by wildcrdj at 3:17 PM on September 7, 2010

Many good answers upthread, also consider this:

1. Do you believe that there is something wrong with you that must be tolerated - some character flaw, behavioral trait or perhaps you have low self-esteem? Then you subconsciously choose partners who must also be tolerated, and who will reinforce these insecurities in you, because it's what you believe you deserve.

2. Do you have a parent/sibling/authority figure in your past who was emotionally distant, an addict/alcoholic, depressed, abusive, suicidal? If so, you are looking for a partner to redeem in order to make peace with your past and to relive relationship patterns you subconsciously find familiar and therefore "normal."

3. Do you believe if you find someone with great potential but who is deeply flawed and "save" that person from themselves, they will be beholden to you, forced to love and keep you in their lives out of gratitude and necessity? If so, this is a doomed quest and you can never achieve it. See the "White Knight" reference above.

4. Do you get a twinge in your gut when you meet these potential partners, thinking, "this is a bad idea... but ______ is sexy/sweet/needs me/could use a friend" and then things turn romantic? STOP. You are not a therapist or a superhero. Once you start going down that drama-filled road, you are stuck on it until you crash the car. LISTEN TO THAT TWINGE. It's the first sign that your fight-or-flight response has been engaged; your urge to become a hero needs to fall a distant second to the "this reminds me of my ex/past BS" alarm.

If you find someone incredibly attractive and then discover a litany of problems with that person, it's fine to disengage at any point. In my own case, I found asking some casual but deliberate questions on dates about a person's childhood/drug history/past relationships gave me all the clues I needed to decide, "Nope, he's hot/interesting/smart/funny/intelligent, but that's not enough to overcome X" and walk away with no regrets.

If you start dating someone new and realize that every 3rd or 4th conversation about your new honey involves something negative, stop dating that person. And by that I mean, everybody gets sick, has accidents, does stupid things, accidentally embarrasses you - but when it's a regular pattern, the relationship is becoming your way to get attention/sympathy/free drinks or whatever out of other people. Focus on being happy and productive and not a person whose "entertaining stories" revolve around their own personal pain and drama. Good luck.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 3:44 PM on September 7, 2010 [12 favorites]

I think zarq really nailed a lot of it, but I'd also add this from my own experiences: because they are interesting. There's a reason why you won't find many skydivers at a chess club, because once you've hurled yourself from a perfectly good airplane, board games just don't measure up. Most of us who have a history of dating the truly messed up are messed up ourselves - we've had our default setting of what's normal set to "crazy loonball" so far back in our childhoods that we couldn't recognize normal if we were smacked in the head with it.

The only way out of that thinking, as far as I know, is time, experience and practice. First, you need to recognize that what you are attracted to in people is often not healthy and just a reflection of your own problems, this takes experience and a lot of exposure to less messed up people than oneself. Then, you have to change your default setting. You can do this with the help of therapy, or you can slowly and stubbornly compare your initial reactions to someone with what you know from your experience - that (to steal a wonderful quote from a friend of mine who's faced a similar dilemma) "sure, dating crazy people is exciting, but so is being chased by wild dogs."
posted by The Light Fantastic at 5:14 PM on September 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

Maybe you have a need to be needed. A person who has their shit together wouldn't need you the same way, so you think you would feel less valued, less "the hero", less "the strong one." Or maybe you think that if you spend so much time and energy rescuing them from their drama and solving their problems, the less time and energy you will have to look at yourself and face down your own issues and work on those. Not uncommon.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:41 PM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree that broken people are easy and if you like to be needed, they're very needy people and I also think it will sort itself out. One day you just won't be able to do it anymore, if it's actually an issue for you.

The problem with those people is you fix them, and they wake up one day full of confidence and say "Hey, I'm fixed!" and leave you, or they cling on to you so hard that you can barely breathe. You'll get bored of both of those scenarios very quickly, and at least you will have learned an important lesson about people.
posted by foxy at 6:10 PM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you're already ready to stop. I would take all the suggestions offered here about how to screen potential dating partners for the drama queens.

I hope you don't end up pathologizing yourself, though. Don't focus on "oh, why am I so fucked up that I choose fucked-up people?" Just focus on learning how to tell who the fucked-up people are.

My experience with Codependents Anonymous and therapy is that therapy is much more helpful. A good therapist helps you learn about yourself without shame and judgment. My experience with CoDA was more harmful than helpful. I was told I was a "love addict" and would never get better, and encouraged to constantly focus on my shortcomings and engage in magical thinking. Other members of the group bombarded me with cliches, all delivered with cultlike certainty. None of this was good for my self-esteem, but therapy was.

It might be hard to weed out the drama queens at first, but you will get better at it, so don't beat yourself up if you kiss a few more frogs.

In my experience, one of the most important "tells" of a drama queen (or king) is that they will self-disclose inappropriately -- for example, telling someone they've just met about how they were sexually abused as a child, or used to cut themselves, or something like that. Or, they will ask intrusive questions with no regard for boundaries.

Sometimes they'll tell you how they were victimized by other people. I once met a woman who told me all about how her entire friendship group turned against her. If your first few conversations with someone "get deep" and are about negative things, that's a big warning sign.

Practice good boundaries, and look for others who do the same. And as John Cohen said, try dating women in your age group, maybe even a bit older.
posted by xenophile at 6:40 PM on September 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

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