Help me break an unhealthy relationshipping pattern!
October 10, 2018 5:22 AM   Subscribe

I'm attracted to men who are bad for me. I've learned to see the red flags and stay away from them, or at the very least - dump them quickly. I'm now making a conscious effort in seeking out kind, healthy men and asking them out. It's not working out.

Through therapy and refraining from dating for more than two years I've made good progress regarding my preferences for unhealthy or abusive relationships. Being able to see boundary breaching, avoidant or emotionally unavailable behavior early on feels like a victory. Being able to stay away from addiction-ridden, depressed and troubled men feels like a victory. Being able to identify the "good guys" and being brave enough to ask them out feels like a victory.

The problem is that I lose interest in those kind men after a couple of dates. I recognize that they are treating me well and making an effort, but time and again the little spark that made me approach them in the first place just dies. When that happens, I try to let them down as gently as possible, and feel incredibly guilty for pursuing them and then ending things despite them being attentive and kind. The guilt pushes me into an emotional state where I feel fundamentally broken and undeserving of love, which in turn makes me fixate on the "bad guys" I've been trying to get away from all along. I don't act on my impulses and never pursue the troubled men I bump into, but the pull is strong. Then I have to patiently talk myself out of that dark place, convince myself that I deserve to be happy too, only to find myself unable to connect with the healthy, good-natured and respectful men that agree to go out with me when I work up the nerve to pursue them again. It's a loop that repeats itself.

I've broken one bad pattern and gotten into another one. In a way, it feels even more hopeless, as now I understand what is happening and where it is coming from. The progress that I've made seems pointless, because understanding my behavioral patterns does not change how I feel.

Any advice would be much appreciated. Any book recommendations? Anybody with a similar problem? I fail to see a way forward from here.

Many thanks.
posted by mesija to Human Relations (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I have a similar problem! The only guy that I have gone on a date with in the last several years who seemed really nice and had no red flags was a total bore! And kissing him was like kissing a plastic bag.

I think the answer is really that these boring guys aren't right for us either. At some point we will probably both find somebody to date who is not horrible and also not boring. I think that that is really just the truth. It is very normal to go on a few dates with someone and just not feel a spark.

But I do think that this is partly a question of esteem. You say that these are "men that agree to go out with me," and the turn of that phrase is not super kind to you. These guys are lucky to go out with you, they are not merely agreeing to it like it's some kind of chore! I have found that becoming more confident in myself has really changed the way I approach dating. So, I would get really into some hobbies that focus on you, start going to the gym or meditating, etc. That has been very helpful for me.

Best of luck.
posted by sockermom at 5:34 AM on October 10, 2018 [14 favorites]

I had a similar experience. I don't know if this will happen for you, but it did for me. I gave a guy a chance -- only because I felt the initial spark, as you do with some of these guys you ask out -- and then was I patient. It is true that I was absolutely not bored with him in terms of his character and intelligence, but the crazy thing where OMG YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I EVER EVER EVER KABOOM didn't happen and that was confusing. I was depressed and thought it could only happen with a jerk. But here's the thing. Some people, especially introverted, careful men, kind men, take a while to open up. Getting to know them more deeply is the only thing that releases the intensity that they really do have inside. It is better than the kind of intensity I used to look for. But it wasn't available before intimacy.
I don't think this would work if you didn't feel the attraction to begin with, and I am sure it would not work with every guy who you start to feel bored with. But sometimes letting yourself listen for the small embers to begin slowly sizzling, instead of looking to jump feet first into the fire, produces an amazing glow.
posted by nantucket at 5:44 AM on October 10, 2018 [45 favorites]

I have to wonder if there's some space between the bad and good guys that you might be missing. Is your idea of what defines a good guy perhaps pre-selecting for boring as if that is being associated with nice as opposed to "exciting" and dangerous or bad? .That's how it works in the media, but it doesn't have to be the way it works in life, though finding those "in-between" guys, if that is the issue, would of course be another matter. I mean I've known good guys who live interesting lives and don't seem to lack for passion, so I just suspect there might be a selection issue involved.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:48 AM on October 10, 2018 [8 favorites]

I’m currently reading a book that’s nominally about dog training (Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog) but actually about principles of behavior modification that apply to any living being. Her explanation of “variable reinforcement” and how that also applies to people staying in relationships with people who aren’t consistently good to them has been illuminating to me.

Basically, it works similarly to gambling; she points out that slot machines would feel boring rather than exciting if every time you put a nickel in, you got back a dime, even though you would consistently be making money.

(I can send you the relevant paragraphs from the book if you want—it’s just enough to feel too long to cut and paste.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:59 AM on October 10, 2018 [10 favorites]

Just to clarify since I see my post was a bit abstract. I was wondering if the qualities you are using to determine whether someone will treat you right, could stand a little tweaking. From my experience, personally and from hearing from women I've been friends with, there is some difference, for example, between respect and deference. Being treated with respect can still involve disagreement and occasional conflicts from other life involvements which can maintain a healthy sort of tension through interest in the other's life and in restoking desire through positive growth and change.

Deference can kill that interest if the other person isn't showing adequate excitement in their own life and aren't providing a healthy challenge for yours. It isn't necessarily more respectful to always agree, that can feel empty, respectful disagreement can be a useful part of a healthy relationship for coming from respect for each other's ideas and values. The excitement that comes from unhealthy relationships often seems to come through the tension opposition and unpredictability provides, healthy relationships can also be unpredictable and have concordant tension from both partners having dynamic lives outside the relationship.

I obviously don't know if that fits your case, but I've seen it be an issue before when there is no spark of excitement in relationships where both partners treat each other well.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:08 AM on October 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

Best answer: The problem here is your feelings of guilt. What you're doing is fine and normal! You go on a few dates with a person who seems interesting, you see if something more is kindling, if it's not you move on. That's how it works.

The guilt for ending things? The idea that you owe a guy continued romantic interest because he meets base-level standards of attentiveness and kindness? That's what the abusive men in your life have tried to train you to feel. The nice, normal guys you've been dating (if they are actually nice and normal) don't feel mad at you or that you led them on or let them down.

You have nothing to feel guilty about. Keep meeting the guys who meet basic standards. You'll have to meet quite a few before you find a guy who really strikes up feelings in you. That's how it's supposed to work. You're doing everything right.
posted by escabeche at 7:08 AM on October 10, 2018 [18 favorites]

Best answer: I think it's really healthy that you break things off after a few dates when the spark is not there and it doesn't mean you're not able to be attracted to good guys, you just haven't met the right one for you yet.

Think about the elements that work for you - attentive + kind + ________ + ________....? It takes time to meet a good person who is also physically attractive or appealing to you and also generally simpatico, attentive and kind are baseline settings not the whole package.

Think of how you are with your friends, there are probably some you can discuss anything with and rely on, and others you maintain at a bit of a distance but enjoy spending time with in certain settings. If you want a partner who can be like a best friend it's good to suss out compatibility in terms of life outlook, goals, values. There are so many people who I think are nice, but who I don't feel a compatibility with for whatever reason and don't have much to talk about with and it's nothing to feel bad about. Niceness isn't enough for a relationship.

Keep thinking about what you were drawn to in those past relationships, and how much of it was in your head. Avoidant behavior is really rewarding as described by needs more cowbell, and it allows you to do lots of fantasizing while you're waiting for them to text you back, but there's no substance. Boundary pushing can feel good because the initial time is so intense but again there's no shared history or trust because that takes time. Work on resetting those cues as relationship ideals. What's better and more real is meeting someone who you're attracted to, who shares some similiarities and some differences from you, and building a repository of shared experiences together, inside jokes, traditions, routines. That takes time to build and won't be so obvious in the first two dates, but you can judge whether you want to keep seeing them based on you feeling some attraction to them, some interest in learning more, and both of you doing what you say you will in terms of making an effort to show up to each other.

One thing that helped me was observing happy couples around me and sort of imprinting it into my brain, like "this couple is calm and contented together, it's nice how he is taking her preferences into account" or "this couple seems to really enjoy each other's company" or "this couple seems to feel so secure with each other". If you don't have those experiences personally I think it's a powerful way to tell yourself what to look for in others so you can recognize those good things when you encounter it.
posted by lafemma at 7:24 AM on October 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

Best answer: May I suggest that you’re looking at this in the wrong way?

Identifying bad potential partners before you get invested in a relationship with them is a great skill to have. Good for you for cultivating it, that will save you loads of trouble in the future.

Don’t beat yourself up for asking a guy out who seems nice and cool, and then finding out there isn’t any chemistry on your side. That’s a normal part of dating. It doesn’t make you a bad person, and you’re not doing something bad to the guy for giving it a shot with them. It’s a bummer when there’s no spark, but it isn’t a “bad pattern” at all.

Dating isn’t a democracy. You’re not supposed to lawyer yourself into the most beneficial relationship contract with the partner that seems the most ideal on paper. You don’t have to justify your feelings for anyone and you don’t have to stay in a relationship that isn’t right for you. Remember that the behavior typically displayed by dysfunctional and abusive people is specifically cultivated to make others vulnerable to them and dependent on them. It’s like Doritos being specially formulated to make you want to eat the whole bag in one sitting. Of course you’re drawn to the people who display behaviors that hit your brain centers in certain ways. But like Doritos, when you know in advance that going all in on the whole bag puts you in a world of hurt, it makes it easier to say no. It doesn’t mean you’re the screwball one for still finding them appealing—you’re supposed to. That’s the marketing message they’re sending out. But you don’t have to buy it.

You don’t mention how you’re approaching dating. Are you asking out people whom you don’t know very well (like people on a dating site, new acquaintances, etc)? Maybe you need to try an approach where you get to know someone well, over a period of several months, before you consider asking them out. If you feel an initial attraction to someone, don’t ask them out right away, get to know them and hang out socially. That way, if the spark fades after a few weeks or so, then you know it was that you recognized that they were a cool person but that there wasn’t enough chemistry. If the spark doesn’t fade and instead seems to stick around, then ask them out.

If you are doing what I suggested and asking out people you know pretty well, and still discovering that they’re a cool person but the chemistry isn’t there for romance...then you’re doing it right.
posted by Autumnheart at 7:25 AM on October 10, 2018 [10 favorites]

Best answer: It's great that you know how to avoid the emotionally unavailable guys, and that you now recognize the kind respectful ones. That's huge! Now, just because you meet a kind respectful guy doesn't mean you have to be interested in him, or have a relationship with him. He could still be boring, but maybe that isn't related to the fact that he's kind and respectful, you know? You need to find compatibility; find someone whose weird matches up with your weird (as said by Captain Awkward).

Also, maybe this will help when the pull towards the emotionally unavailable comes back. See also Baggage Reclaim.
posted by foxjacket at 8:21 AM on October 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

No good guy is going to make you feel the way the bad guys feel, because it's their badness that is the spark, the way their avoidance and boundary-crossing attracts you, which of course no good guy is going to manifest.

You don't have to be with a good guy, but if you want to be with one, it is going to be on a different basis of attraction and maybe an entirely different sort of attraction.
posted by MattD at 8:54 AM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Everyone's making pretty good points about the kind of men you're looking for definitely existing, so I just wanted to address your specific attraction to men who are bad for you. Specifically because it's easy to take that part of you and think of it as some toxic aspect of your soul you can't wash off, rather than just a part of you that you can control to not just not mess up your life, but make it genuinely better by integrating it into a healthy relationship.

Maybe this is facile but, when you do find a dude who is neither an asshole nor boring, you can recreate within a safe environment the circumstances that make you attracted to transgressive, boundary-crossing assholes without actually having to deal with the real-life fallout of having to deal with that kind of person. Maybe it will take some adjusting to because it's slightly less attractive when it's sort of an artifice or act instead of a natural expression, but you can certainly give it a good try to get past that and just enjoy it.

Many, many people out there are in functioning, healthy relationships that include a carefully negotiated, consensual and compartmentalized series of transgressions and boundary-crossings. God knows many people out there can't be in a relationship without that aspect to it. So I would respectfully disagree with MattD above: a good dude can absolutely manifest these transgressive things you find attractive, but it requires a bedrock of trust and communication.

Do some soul-searching about exactly where the attraction you have to transgression lies, and figure out which parts can be safely extracted and acted out. Maybe the answer is "none of them" and those are the breaks, but more likely you'll be able to find some stuff that sets that small part of your brain on fire, just safely. Then keep that in your back pocket and when you do come across a guy who is neither shitty nor boring you can bring it out when you feel safe and explore your attraction to transgression with a receptive and respectful partner.
posted by griphus at 9:29 AM on October 10, 2018 [14 favorites]

When you start to feel the spark peter out, go on an 'extreme' date. Anything from a horror movie to a live, audience-interactive performance, or an intense physical activity like rock climbing or ziplining or skydiving. Adrenaline spikes in response to stress; you'll have the familiar cycling of hormonal and physical responses, and you'll be in his company as all that happens.

The idea is to temporarily trick your drama-loving brain and buy a potentially good-for-you relationship a little more time to develop. It's so great that you've recognized the unhealthy pattern and are working to change it; it's just that your brain has worn deep grooves in the old pathways and has set up a whole reward system around your previous m.o.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:36 AM on October 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think you are being too hard on yourself. You have successfully addressed a negative pattern of behaviour that some people go their whole lives without addressing.

It might be helpful to remember that when you're dating you won't feel a spark for a lot of good and kind men - it is completely normal not to feel a spark for people, for whatever reason! I think your only course of action is to keep going down the route you are on. Keep going to therapy, keep going on dates with kind people and avoiding the ones that are bad for you. It takes time to really cement new habits. And don't pathologise yourself every time you go on a date and don't feel an attraction. I went on dozens of internet dates and felt attraction for maybe 3 people.
posted by thereader at 11:13 AM on October 10, 2018

This may not be the thing for you, and if not, I apologize. Are you being completely honest with yourself? It's pretty common not to be (and I used to do it). When you "don't feel a spark" and tell the dates as much, is there really no chance you could get to like one of these guys? Or are you preemptively rejecting them for another reason (not feeling good enough for them was mine). I only say this because I used to say I "just wanted an authentic connection" when in reality I was rejecting those connections before they could fully see my own imperfections and reject me. But, like most people with low self-esteem, it took awhile in therapy to realize what I was really doing (and how "broken" I felt).

As others have said, if you are being fully honest with yourself, then what you're doing is exactly right. Except for the guilt, that doesn't help anything. You're just going on dates to try to get to know people, you don't owe them anything more than that.
posted by ldthomps at 11:58 AM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A couple of thoughts, first about dating in general and then about that spark.

First of all, how many of these men were the good guys you didn't want to see any more? Are we talking just a few different men? Dating is largely a numbers game. The more people you meet and go on dates with, the more likely you are to find someone attractive to you. And it's okay that you don't like all of them, or most of them. That's healthy! When you stop dating someone you aren't excited about, you don't need to feel guilty. You are being true to your feelings and emotions. And, you are freeing them up to spend their time and energy finding someone who is going to be a better match for them. It feels bad to hurt people's feelings when they are good people, but hurting people's feelings doesn't mean we did anything wrong. It's okay not to like people. The idea isn't to find a guy who is nice and attentive. The idea is to find a man who is those things and with whom you feel a real connection. Are you feeling like maybe you led them on, maybe you wanted to convince yourself to like them? It's just fine to go on a few dates with people and let things develop and then decide it's just not right. That's healthy and mature, even though it means people might be hurt you aren't as interested.

Next, about that spark: there's an excellent book called Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, that I suspect would be an incredibly insightful read for you. Specifically, it address three different common attachment styles, secure, anxious, and avoidant. Folks with an avoidant attachment style want intimacy but are scared of it. They can seem at times exciting and invested only to pull back as you get closer. They send a lot of mixed messages. It can make you a huge mess if you're falling for this person, and you might find you are behaving in all sorts of odd ways to try to get their attention, by pulling back yourself or texting too much or trying to make them jealous. They have, according to the book, activated your attachment system. And when they respond with a compliment or attention, you light up, and everything feels right and good... and then the cycle starts again.

Is that what feels like the spark? Here's a snippet from the book (roughly, any typos are mine): "After living like this for a while, you start to do something interesting. You start to equate the anxiety, the preoccupation, the obsession, and those ever-so-short bursts of joy with love. What you're doing is equating an activated attachment system with passion. Remember, an activated attachment system is not passionate love. Next time you date someone and find yourself feeling anxious, insecure, and obsessive--only to feel elevated every once in a while--tell yourself that this is mostly an activated attachment system and not love. True love, in the evolutionary sense, means peace of mind. 'Still waters run deep' is a good way of characterizing it."

This is not to say that love can't have passion. But I'm wondering if that spark that you're missing is the burst of joy from the attention from someone who has an avoidant attachment style.

Or maybe you just need to keep doing what you are doing: going out on dates with people and moving on quickly when someone is a "bad guy" or is a good guy, but not the right guy for you.

The book Attached has some great suggestions on dating to find someone who will be a good partner when you've been stuck in bad dating patterns in the past. I recommend it highly.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:03 PM on October 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

I dated someone who I thought was kind and respectful but he was a dick in his own avoidant, deferential, noncommittal way. He also was a complete void and lacked any life of his own, but he was just so polite that I thought it was fine. Still better than the first guy I dated who was abusive as hell. I did too much emotional labor for both of them.

Nice and respectful are musts, but you need to date someone you actually like. You can have everything you want, or at least close to it. Don't settle!
posted by yueliang at 2:38 PM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think you are facing the fallacy of the missing middle. There are guys who can be bad and also caring. I have a buddy who is just like this. Super athletic and buff, teases his GF, makes jokes, my guess is properly gropey and grabby at home, has that edge to him--but he is a nice guy in the end. Take your time and kiss as many frogs as you need.

Also, take some chances with the bad boys. You are avoiding men who you are attracted to. The key is to take your defenses one step further. Allow yourself to take a chance and trust that you can bail when you need to! Eventually you'll find a "bad boy" who can also be available in the ways you want.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:43 PM on October 12, 2018

It sounds like you're finding guys who are as far away as the prototypical asshole guy you've been attracted to as possible, and this is good! But there are guys who are still edgy and have a spark to them who are also genuinely good people. There are guys who are smartasses sometimes who are also incredibly caring and loving. The kind, good end of the dating spectrum is filled with a wide range of personalities, and it sounds like you're going with the most, uh, mind-numbingly boring type because that feels safest. But boring, average guys aren't always nice, and nice isn't always boring. It's okay to still go out with guys who have that spark. Just be willing to say no as early and quickly as possible.
posted by Amy93 at 12:50 PM on October 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

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