Why do people throw themselves at people who are mean to them?

This has puzzled me all of my life and I have yet to hear a cogent answer from a psychologist or anyone else: why do some people keep dating others who treat them terribly? Perhaps, since I’m a straight male, I see it most often in straight women. Does it play out the same way in gay relationships or with straight men as well?

I’m not talking about someone who falls in love with a decent person who simply doesn’t fall in love back with them. I’m talking about out and out low life predators and those who inexplicably continue not just to love them, but to forgive all kinds of terrible actions and go running back to them in the delusional hope things will be different the 20th time around. I can give example after example drawn from almost four decades of heterosexual life, dating back almost to the first time I noticed girls were different and wonderful.

Just yesterday a really neat, otherwise independent, very attractive platonic friend I know blew off her friends, her seven year-old daughter, and parents — after making solid weekend plans with both and confirming those plans a few days ago — to disappear without a trace leaving us all worried she was dead or in jail or something, to spend a few days being used sexually and financially by an unemployed, gross loser living in a travel trailer in his grandmother’s backyard. This is not your average guy looking for easy sex: he has systematically ripped off her, her family and directly cost everyone in her life thousands of dollars over the course of three years, cheated on her multiple times when they were supposedly dating, demeaned her in every way, and once got her so wasted he was able to get her to do some things she has been deeply ashamed of ever since. After which, when she would try to get him out of her life, he would claim he had taped it and would post it on the Internet just to scare the shit out of her. And all after swearing many times she hated him and would never talk to him again.

When some of us pointed out we were worried we’d be stuck helping her pick up the pieces, again, she became hysterical shouting that no one cared about her, it was none of our business, and she doesn’t tell us how to run our lives so we shouldn’t criticize her. Believe me, we all wish it wasn’t our business. But the emotional and financial wreckage left behind ends up crying and ashamed in our living rooms time and time again. It is almost exactly like a destructive drug or alcohol addiction, but it’s common enough in non drug addicts that I bet readers know exactly what I mean. That’s the thing, this is not unique, quite the opposite. This is a stark case, but sooner or later I see some version of it play out in many woman who are otherwise totally secure and have their shit together.

Before anyone gets all preachy, I and others have told her we won’t hang out with her until she gets the guy out of her life, or better yet has him arrested or sued in court. She’ll get burned, excise the loser for a few weeks or even a month or two, and then be right back with him. Plus I have known her since she was 12 years-old and this is totally new behavior for her.

Is this a universal human weakness? How does it happen? What subconscious or conscious forces are at work there?


  1. says

    I would submit that your friend is just as bad as the male creep that supposedly is abusing her, just as Whitney Houston was corrupted by her relationship with Bobby Brown. A sign of integrity is a refusal to give in to wrongdoings from others as well as any you might commit yourself. We should not excuse such ethical lapses just because they come from women.

  2. says

    This happens to men all the time, too. Straight guys are just less attuned to think of it in those terms. Have you known anyone who caused themselves a great deal of grief trying to keep a girlfriend out of trouble who was a drug addict or petty criminal?

    The usual speculation is that it’s a matter of thinking the more problems a relationship causes, the more you feel like you’re doing something by trying to manage those problems, so the more invested you are.

  3. Pen says

    I think it can be a form of addictive behaviour like alcohol, gambling or eating more chocolate cake than is good for your diet. She isn’t ‘choosing’ to do this in the same way that alcoholics don’t ‘choose’ to go on a binge. It might seem obvious that there is no chance this guy will work out this time but so it is with gambling and there is probably some stimulation and excitement involved in the process of trying. And it makes it very hard to treat with reason, kindness, etc. However, I’m no expert so if you don’t think so, take it with a pinch of salt.

  4. maudell says

    I see a version of this in men quite often, I think it is just a common human trait (I can’t recall knowing a woman in that situation, but I’m pretty sure it’s the same reason why you seem to notice more women doing this). From my experience, the pattern seems to be related with investment. The abuser is often very good at “push and pull” manipulation. People don’t want to think they got abused/ripped off for no reason, and they hold on to the idea that they did something good. Many men around me are miserable, because while they want a drama-free relationship, they can’t stop going back to the crazy ones. Again, humans are messed up.
    It doesn’t have to be romantic either. I’ve experienced this with asshole bosses. I had a boss in a restaurant who was completely irrational, he would ask employee to do something, then yell at them for having done exactly what he’d asked. You just never knew what he decided what was wrong, since it changed everyday. He was very abusive, throwing plates and humiliating the staff in front of customers. Once in a while, he would come to work super happy and really supportive and kind. We all became suckers then. I found myself seeking his approval (I needed the job, leaving was not an option for me at that time), and I’m really not that type of person normally. I noticed the same behaviour in other employees, and the fact that we validated his abuse was troubling to me.
    I also have a friend who went from being really peaceful to quite violent in about a decade. He gets into fights all the time with other guys now, he has real anger issues. One weird thing happens though. When he really injures a guy, the guy will often try to become his friend after. He gets a lot more respect from other men now (although women do flee when he’s around, but I know this isn’t universal either).
    I’d be interested too in knowing more about the psychological aspects of this self-defeating behaviour.

    Not sure why you see people blaming an abuser as “excusing ethical lapses just because they come from women.” Abused men have a lot of stigma in society (as being weak, not ‘real men,’ etc.), and I find your assumption that they are to blame offensive. It’s not by blaming victims of either gender that we’ll get somewhere.

  5. ibbica says

    As I understand it, most abusive relationships don’t start out that way right off the bat; it’s much more insidious.

    What may be considered as ‘warning signs’ that a relationship has the potential to turn abusive have been culturally romanticized or dismissed, e.g. monopolizing a partner’s time, seeking to ‘help you improve yourself’ (related to explaining demands or abuse as ‘for your own good’), possessiveness, jealousy, ‘joking’ criticism, etc. Potential victims have likely been taught that these behaviours and attitudes not only aren’t ever ‘bad’ (no, they don’t *have* to be, but yes they *can* be), and should even be considered desirable. It likely starts at least as early as being taught on the playground that “He just teases you because he likes you.”

    Beyond that initial starting point, there’s of course plenty of reading out there related to the psychology of what is often referred to as ‘battered woman syndrome’ (more recently: ‘battered person syndrome’) and to how abusers effectively manipulate others.

  6. No One says

    My take? We are all still trying to please our parents. When we are young we depend on the goofy big people for our survival. We try to please them even if what they ask for seems wrong, irrational or unreasonable. I think that the behavior you describe might be attributed to that.

  7. karmacat says

    You may want to ask her what she is hoping for. Tell her you want to understand what she is going through, what she needs. Don’t tell her what to do or why he is bad for her. Hopefully by answering these questions, she will have better idea of why she goes back to this guy. Try to be as non-judgmental as you can. Is she willing to see a therapist? There a lot of different reasons men and women pursue destructive relationships. Some of it is co dependency. Sometimes doesn’t feel they can get anyone else

  8. says

    My best guess is that he’s very, very skilled at manipulation. He knows all her secret fears and hungers, and he pushes her buttons ruthlessly. This isn’t an unhealthy romance – it’s a predator getting lunch.

  9. ianeymeaney says

    Well I guess, I should stick up for myself
    But I really think it’s better this way
    The more you suffer
    The more it shows you really care! Right? Yeah!

    H/T to The Offspring

  10. Trebuchet says

    Have to ask, is this the same woman as in your dating question a week or two ago?

  11. Happiestsadist, opener of the Crack of Doom says

    Gotta say, I’m kind of disgusted that your main concern is how hard it is for you to support someone who is being abused and that you’re so put-upon.

    And really, there are a damn lot of explanations for why people stay in abusive relationships. Most abusive relationships don’t start out that way. There’s almost always enough emotional abuse and manipulation that the victim is convinced that they deserve it, and that they cannot possibly do better than their abuser. Abusers are really, really good at this, just as they are really good at being wonderful and charming at the beginning. For a damn lot of us, we’re not just abused the once, it can go back to being abused as kids and having no sense of normalcy, you go with the devil you know.

    So, there’s some of how you get there, why don’t they leave? Well, in her case, because she is likely fucking scared of what he would do if she did. Not just the video, by the way, most women who are murdered are killed trying to leave. Also, maybe because she can’t face a bunch of smug victim-blaming “I told you so”s from what unfortunately passes for her support circle?

    Dalehusband, you are absolutely disgusting.

  12. ibbica says

    … some of us pointed out we were worried we’d be stuck helping her pick up the pieces, again, …

    Er… well, making it about how inconvenient her choices are for you is probably not the ideal way to go about offering your support and/or assistance. Convincing her that she’s inconveniencing you seems likely to drive her further away from you, and closer to this abusive guy (who very likely has her convinced that she’s HIS WHOLE WORLD).

    karmacat @8 has the right of it, I think, but I hasten to add that I wouldn’t suggest mentioning anything in the latter half of that comment to your friend… “Are you willing to see a therapist?” “I think you might be co-dependent.” “Do you just think you can’t get anyone else?” are likely to come across as accusatory, rather than supportive.

  13. says

    Ohhh, of course Daisy, it’s my fault for not listening properly. Maybe her friends and family too! But definitely not the guy who is doing the damage. And if we get concerned about it, or ask for advice, or worry that she’s gonna end up dead or in jail, or alone and broke and homeless, why we’re just being selfish or disgusting because we’re concerned about how it is affecting us, eh Happie?

    You two are both hilarious. Not very helpful, but definitely funny.

  14. Happiestsadist, opener of the Crack of Doom says

    It’s not that you’re concerned, it’s that your primary complaint is how it’s inconveniencing you, with a patronizing sneer at how you feel she’s behaving stupidly. It’s not like there is, as I said, ample literature out there on why people stay in abusive relationships. You wanted reasons, I gave you some.

    I’m sorry I’m not impressed by your self-pity and sneering at a woman being abused. I’m sorry I’m not a more helpful DV survivor, I just answered your question, and am rather stung by your victim-blaming.

  15. says

    Apology accepted. FWIW, this goes way beyond inconveniencing me. It is like dealing with a full blown drug addict, with the difference that the drug is conscious and knows exactly what it’s doing to her and everyone around her. The way I found about this last relapse or whatever you want to call it is her 90 year-old mom called me up choking back tears asking me if I knew what happened to her and if she was ok.

  16. karmacat says

    I agree with ibbica: don’t say she is co-dependent or she needs therapy. You will have to listen a lot. If she agrees she is being abused, she may be open talking to someone at a local house of Ruth type place. You could certainly say you care and worry about her. Sometimes there isn’t much you can do. Best of luck to you and ESP. To your friend

  17. The Laughing Coyote (Canis Sativa) says

    Stephen, your post contained one or two lines about how bad this dude is, and like, the whole rest seems to be about how stupid and irresponsible and self destructive the woman is.

    FWIW, this goes way beyond inconveniencing me. It is like dealing with a full blown drug addict, with the difference that the drug is conscious and knows exactly what it’s doing to her and everyone around her.

    And you’re so close to “Getting It” here.

    Apology accepted.

    I don’t think this was an acceptable response to HappiestSadist’s entirely sarcastic apology there. You wanted to know why this shit happens? Why women go back to abusers? Why don’t you listen to the DV survivor telling you why then?

  18. says

    If you want someone to listen to you in comments, it’s best not to start out blaming them or insulting them, don’t you think? Once you cuss someone out in the first foray, it’s kinda hard to demand respect and civility. I’ve been a victim of domestic violence too, that doesn’t mean everyone has to be nice to me while I insult and blame them for things they have zero control over.

    As far as the victim here, I have listened to her, everyone she knows has, for a long long time. It hasn’t done any good. Over the last couple of years she has lost her job, her home, her car and most of her friends because of this guy. I and others have tried everything we can think of, but more and more we’re seen as a piggy bank, a resource, with which to subsidize the relationship and its aftermath, or as a convenient source to place blame. As I’m recovering from heart surgery and probably facing more, and have a low paying job, there comes a point where it’s just too painful and too stressful to be part of anymore. That’s where I’m at.

    I was just curious if anyone had a fresh perspective, you know, beyond “You’re an asshole for not supporting her further,” or the inevitable counter, “It’s your fault for putting up with it.” Both of those I expected.

  19. The Laughing Coyote (Canis Sativa) says

    OK, I have a third one then.

    Some friendships are just toxic. You can’t ‘fix’ people, it just doesn’t work like that. And if her problems are causing a drain, then there’s no shame in ending the friendship. Just because it’s not her fault, does not mean you’re obligated to keep supporting her if her behavior is becoming toxic to others.

    But I’m gonna assume that’s not what you want to do.

    If you want someone to listen to you in comments, it’s best not to start out blaming them or insulting them, don’t you think? Once you cuss someone out in the first foray, it’s kinda hard to demand respect and civility. I’ve been a victim of domestic violence too, that doesn’t mean everyone has to be nice to me while I insult and blame them for things they have zero control over.

    Happiestsadist has a foul mouth but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. I’m not too keen on the “Argument From Tone” myself. But if you’re willing to ignore perfectly valid info just because it isn’t handed to you with hugs and asspats… well, that’s your deal dude.

  20. The Laughing Coyote (Canis Sativa) says

    I’ve been there before Andrew. When I was a teen I tried to help a friend who was being badly abused by her mom, but her own toxic behavior ended up forcing me to end the friendship. And really, in hindsight, I was stupid, clumsy, and hamhanded at it myself.

    And that’s just the thing. If you want to help someone, you gotta make sure you’re helping them in the right way and not inadvertantly making things worse with good intentions. It really is kind of a big responsibility, and not one to be taken on lightly.

    I’m not saying you’re ‘taking it on lightly’ from your story, but if you really wanna help this woman, you might want to point her to some professional resources… abuse counselling or something? Of course that all depends on if she’s aware enough of the toxic nature of her relationships to take the help.

    I’m kinda digressing here, but the main thing is… even if you don’t mean to, your OP here does come off a little victim blamey. I know part of that is coming from a place of frustration, but seriously, it ain’t gonna help her or anyone.

    I mean, we both agree that the fault lies with the douchebag right?

  21. The Laughing Coyote (Canis Sativa) says

    Abusers can be very very good at convincing their victims there’s a sweet innocent child-at-heart underneath the rough exterior.

    Even when everyone else can see the screamingly obvious.

  22. says

    I am going try to explain some of the why, discussing my childhood rapes in the process. TW for the content. I’ve never commented here before and if I manage to violate some comment policy please let me know.

    Every time my step father raped me I knew it was wrong. The first time I even told someone what happened. By the end I thought it was less wrong than before.

    My safety was dismissed because of his excuses and promises and his threats. He was drunk. He won’t do it again. He will tell her BIG SECRET.

    And she convinced herself he could be trusted, convinced me that I SHOULDN’T be trusted. It happened again and again and again. I went to him when he asked. He told me lies designed to make me believe he cared. He told me lies designed to make me believe he was doing the proper thing. He told me lies designed to make me love him.

    I didn’t love him. I didn’t trust anyone. I never believed it was right.

    I almost did. By the end I came to him a little more willingly than before. But I got lucky. I talked to a friend before I became convinced of my own culpability.

    It bears repeating. I was lucky. Not skilled. Not special. Lucky.

    Predators know how to tell lies. They know how to erode your confidence. They know how to isolate you, to remove your safety net. They know your secrets and will use them against you. They know how to prey.

    I understand it is hard to accept that when adult can’t seem to escape their abuser, especially when by all appearances the adult has friends who are willing to help them out. But in reality someone is lying to them. Someone is hurting them, making them believe they deserve to be hurt, and slowly stripping them of the few people who continue to care about their well being.

    I guess what I am trying to say is try to empathize a bit more. Try to understand that the scum she keeps returning to has set up her life such that returning is the path of least resistance. That while it doesn’t seem to you that he is her only choice, it probably feels that way to her.

  23. Happiestsadist, opener of the Crack of Doom says

    Look, I do admit I came out rather… pointier than you’d likely prefer. But maybe, given my own history and that you kind of are saying things that do sound really, really victim-blaming, someone who has been abused, repeatedly, might be a bit stung. I know you care, but your whole OP comes off as a massive blame-the-victim tirade.

    What WilloNyx said is absolutely right as well.

    The asshole has changed her entire perception of reality. That’s why she’s still with him. Because of the elaborate system of lies he’s made wherein it is only logical and reasonable for her to be there with him. Helping someone out is really, really hard. I’ve done it myself, and it’s scary and draining. You don’t have to give more than you can, but there is no magic wand to break the hold he has on her, and it is really hard.

    I don’t apologize at all for my tone, and don’t appreciate the tone argument.


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