The fine art of dating obviously terrible people.
Have you ever taken a good look at some of your exes and pondered, What in the actual fuck was I thinking?
After a breakup, the plethora of warnings you dismissed on the first date is usually about as subtle as the neon signs at Caesar’s Palace. The experience is nearly universal.
I once fell in love with a woman who literally had a bright yellow warning-sign tattoo (oh, sweet irony). The relationship ended with me feeling like I was getting mauled by a lion in the Serengeti.
So, why would anyone ignore red flags, often repeatedly, to their detriment?
Well, I’ve done the research myself, using my own heart as a guinea pig, and I’m happy to share my findings.
What Do We Want? Love! When Do We Want It? Now!
Attachment is our greatest biological necessity. More than any other animal, the human baby is the most helpless and pathetic little ball of twinkie dough on the planet, ineffectively squirming about and pissing on itself for several years after birth. It’s a goddamn miracle we made it to the top of the food chain.
And we most certainly would not be where we are today without our innate desire for attachment, love, and connection. It’s our evolutionary advantage — one of the best things we’ve got going for us.
Of course, but why do we settle for unhealthy connection? Isn’t that completely counterproductive?
Well… yes and no. Let’s take a look at a few reasons one might date an obviously terrible person.
It’s What You Know
The most obvious reason first: you do what you know. Your parents were emotionally unavailable? That’s who you’ll date. Were they alcoholics? You’ll find a good saucy one. Abusive? Same same.
No one wants to look at the disgusting possibility that they’re dating a younger version of their mom or dad. But it’s so commonplace that we really need to stop lying to ourselves and accept it as an unsavory part of the human condition.
You were thoroughly indoctrinated throughout all of your most impressionable and formative years to associate love and connection with whatever dysfunctional shit your family was smearing around at the time. Don’t take it personal. Just know that people always fall back on their training — one hundred percent of the time.
And maybe you need some new training.
It Looks Like Fun
Sometimes we date unmistakably broken weirdos simply for the thrill of the adventure. Have you ever dated an active meth addict? Wow, that shit is exciting! Similarly, dating a movie-star, musician or model can have incredible appeal, even if the person is demonstrably ill.
Now, I’m not here to say you shouldn’t go sow your wild oats, but if the party ended twenty years ago and you’re still sashaying about with a dirty martini, then you need to get a grip. There is a proper time and place for fun. Treating your primary relationships like a fucking theme park is not advisable.
Low Self-Esteem, Shame, and Self-Sabotage
I won’t get into all the ways in which one acquires toxic shame and low self-esteem. If the abuse, neglect, abandonment, or enmeshment of your childhood are not abundantly clear, please seek out professional help. It’s usually unclear because people tend to assume their childhood was “normal.”
However, someone with unrelenting negative self-talk and pervasive shame believes deep in their heart that they are unworthy of healthy love. They are certain of their inability to succeed. And rather than reach for their dreams and risk rejection (potentially destroying their fragile sense of self), they aim low, somehow comforted by the inevitable failure of not trying.
What about attachment theory? Surely that has something to do with it all, right?
All humans need both connection and protection. Although, some people value protection much more. These people usually had an unboundaried relationship with a parent who was domineering, emotionally abusive, or somehow overly involved in their life. Thus, they learned that relationships are not safe. They are suffocating, controlling, even soul-sucking.
Now, these people for sure want love and connection like everyone else. Still, their need for autonomy, independence, and a sense of safety within the relationship demands that they are characteristically love-avoidant.
Those with an avoidant attachment style may ignore red flags because their partners are 100% replaceable. They have a visceral fear of genuine intimacy and are therefore not all too committed to being with someone anyway.
So rather than date someone who will show up in a healthy way and demand reciprocity, avoidants will often pick a sickie on purpose. The more red flags, the better! That way, they can be sure there’s an expiration date on this relationship and always have a reason to leave at a moment’s notice.
On the other hand, some people value connection over protection. These folks usually had an abandoning experience early on, which could have been physical or emotional. Either way, they did not get their most fundamental human need for attachment met and subsequently developed various coping mechanisms of hyper-vigilance, codependency, love addiction, and the like.
And since being abandoned invariably results in self-abandonment, such people desperately need others to validate them. I am reminded here of an Ernest Becker line from The Denial of Death, “One has so little personal ballast that he has to suck in an entire other human being to keep from disappearing or flying away.” Love addiction truly is compulsive.
So we of the anxious variety will date damn near anyone. Give me that good-good connection, quick-fast in a hurry! I’ll worry about if you’re an ax-murderer later.
Unfortunately, anxious types end up lying to themselves anyway with lines like, “It’ll get better,” “They have so much potential,” or “It’s not that bad.” They must neutralize any potential threat to preserve the most important thing: connection.
Another strong possibility, not unlike the love-avoidant, is that the anxiously attached may have minimal experience with healthy closeness and will therefore avoid picking a healthy partner. That way, they never have to come to terms with their emotional immaturity.
People with a disorganized attachment style are often the most traumatized. They were born in a red flag factory and have characteristics of both anxious and avoidant types. Of course, they crave love as much as anyone else, but brutal childhood experiences of closeness have left them shell-shocked.
These poor souls are tortured by a natural desire for connection coupled with an unnatural fear of being trapped in relationships. It feels like being pulled in opposite directions at the same time — a very confusing internal experience.
Also, having a disorganized attachment style is a profound and unrelenting source of self-hatred. I have deep sympathy in my heart for such people.
It seems as though individuals in this category are drawn to red flag partners for several reasons — namely, all of the reasons already listed above. But also because they need someone to match their level of crazy.
It’s so hard for disorganized attachment types to keep their skeletons in the closet that they may have them scattered all about like throw rugs and furniture. And if they’re going to find any shred of security in a relationship, it’ll be with someone who wears their skeletons on their sleeve, too, so to speak.
These relationships can be shit-shows of the most epic proportion. Quite the public spectacle at times. But please understand that they are not bad people. They are hurt people.
No More Red Flags
The way I escaped the vicious cycle of dumpster fire romance was initially by taking a long, hard look at my behavior before, during, and after each relationship. Literally putting pen to paper and inventorying my oversights and willful ignorance.
Self-awareness is an absolute necessity if you want to improve your life.
This journey of self-discovery led me down the path of various therapies, recovery groups, and books that all ultimately pointed me back to my relationship with myself. I found that self-love is the starting point, not the finish line. That no relationship would ever be healthy until I was healthy.
The truth I have discovered is this: Dating terrible people is not a problem; it’s a symptom. And if you want to stop wasting your time in unsatisfying relationships, you’ve got to get to the root of the matter.
Do you know the expression, “It’s not you, it’s me”? Yeah, that’s actually true.