Why We Date People Who Make Us Feel Like Sh*t
I have always felt slightly in the dark about what it’s like to date the prototypical “emotionally unavailable partner.”
When friends told me about their struggles with people who were “hot and cold,” it’s not as though I didn’t get it — in theory. I could imagine why there might be something seductive about someone who shows interest and then pulls away. That person becomes a puzzle to figure out, someone whose neuroses you feel you can “crack.”
But for most of my life, “the chase” hadn’t really been my thing. Until recently.
I’ve spent the last couple of months completely fixated on a human who makes me feel like shit.
Rob* and I met on Tinder. He was incredibly attractive, smart, hyper-educated, and well-dressed. Immediately, I liked the idea of dating him.
On our first date, we went to the new Whitney Museum. I coincidentally happened to know a lot about the Charles Demuth paintings on display, but my interest in the art never came up.
Rob charged through rooms with palpable apathy, remarking that they were “boring” and without asking me whether or not I was ready to continue on. He just expected me to follow and I did what I felt I should do: I followed. The symbol of “the chase” began quite literally in our dynamic.
The self-respecting part of me thought his demeanor was kind of entitled and unappealing, but there was admittedly a part of me that felt seduced and wanted Rob’s approval.
Being around Rob felt kind of like being around the mean cool girl in middle school. You know she’s cliquey and doesn’t ever make you feel included or happy, but there’s something about her confidence that wins you over.
I was completely aware that Rob was wrong all along. Yet that was part of his appeal.
In theory, Rob was a catch. In practice, my emotions were telling me two things at once: This person is terrible, and this person is incredibly sexy in some screwed up way that validates your insecurities.
After the museum, Rob declared, “Let’s get a drink.” Note: He did not ask. And, in fact, I really didn’t want to get a drink — I had a migraine and was on the verge of getting a cold. I had been dreaming of heading home and watching Netflix.
But I said “yes” instead of “no” because, quite simply, I was afraid to assert my needs. Plus, he was bizarrely into charming me with nostalgic expressions of chivalry (holding doors open, paying for me, and so on).
As a feminist, I was surprised and somewhat disgusted with myself that I was falling for these totally superficial expressions of care. And why was I acting so passive? Rob had caught me at a weird time.
It was the end of August. I was in the midst of an uncomfortable transition. I had left a full-time job to pursue freelance writing. I was about to move into a new apartment. I was getting over a breakup. And I was feeling a resurgence of body image issues and other psychological crap coming to the surface.
Everything in my life at that point felt so uncertain, and I was dealing with crippling self-doubt. In a weird way, I felt somewhat addicted to confirming my own insecurity, and dating Rob certainly heightened my insecurities. At the same time, it also provided me with a sense of potential security — at least theoretically. Amid all of the chaos in my life, at least I could have a boyfriend — even if he made me feel like shit.
After many (read: five) mezcal cocktails, Rob had another idea. “Let’s go to my apartment,” he said. I smiled, and responded “Okay,” even though I wanted to say “no.”
Sure, I was drunk. But I’ve also always overvalued the idea of being easygoing and chill, someone who can just “go with the flow.”
When we got there, it was clear that sex was going to happen (note the passive voice). I didn’t want to have sex, but I figured that Rob expected it, and that giving him what he expected would guarantee continued approval.
I asked Rob if he had a condom. He told me no, he didn’t like them, but he was STD-free, and was really good at “the pull-out method.”
I told him his response made me feel uncomfortable and pressured — and I was proud of myself for speaking up. I was ready for the tides to turn. Rob smiled, told me there was nothing to worry about and cursorily convinced me that everything would be fine if we slept together sans condom.
I was unconvinced, but I found myself leaning on the reliable response of “okay” to avoid ruffling feathers. If I were to say what I need, I reasoned, I’d be making “a big deal.” It would mess with my idea of myself as someone who is hyper-laid-back. So I went through the motions.
After that night, Rob always wanted to spend time together. He texted me every day throughout the day. If I didn’t answer immediately or my responses seemed slightly curt, he’d call to make sure that nothing was wrong.
This might sound “sweet,” but the irony is that Rob didn’t really seem to care whether everything was actually “okay.” Once, when I was a little down, Rob offered to come to my apartment to cook me lunch. When he arrived, he spent the entire time asking me why I had roommates, why I lived in Brooklyn (as opposed to Manhattan), and critiquing my furniture.
Another time, when we were having the closest thing to a “deep” conversation we'd ever had, I told him about a traumatic sexual experience I’d had years ago. He immediately changed the subject to a meeting he’d had earlier that day.
I can’t say for certain that Rob didn’t care about me at all, because I still don’t really understand his psychology. But I’d guess that he cared about having someone there to want his approval. And there I was — doing just what he wanted, and still somehow attracted to him, even though he made me feel, quite literally, like a crazy person.
After about three weeks of our spending time together, I found myself admitting to my therapist that I actually didn’t like Rob at all. I didn’t even really like sleeping with him — so I knew my infatuation wasn’t even about sex.
But I felt drunk with desire, especially when we weren’t together. The combination of his pseudo-obsessive way of letting me know he was thinking of me all the time and his total disregard for what I actually wanted and needed from a partner resulted in my feeling completely obsessed.
“It’s as if nature just wants us to fuck and procreate — nature is unconcerned with long-term relationships.”
Plus, as I mentioned, there was my superficial interest in Rob-as-idea. The concept of dating someone who was good-looking, who had a great job, and was intellectually brilliant gave me enough fodder to entertain rich fantasies of a good relationship. Somehow, each time Rob and I were apart, I would kind of forget about how shitty I felt when we were together.
But giving a full run-down of the Rob saga is not the point of my writing this.
Our relationship is over, but I’m still somewhat obsessed with figuring it out. What the hell made me go through all of this — voluntarily?
According to psychologist Stan Tatkin, who developed PACT (the Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy), this “intoxicated” sensation is largely due to biology. Or, as he explains, “It’s as if nature just wants us to fuck and procreate — nature is unconcerned with long-term relationships.”
At the same time, Tatkin adds, we can’t reduce everything to biology. In his view, the whole phenomenon of finding a partner is a “huge psychobiological system with many moving parts.” And in this moving system, he clarifies, “We may have opposing psychobiological agendas … . The person with whom you’re infatuated may look terrible on paper but you can’t say no. Another person looks great on paper, but you’re just not that into them.”
What’s really happening on a biological level, says Tatkin, is that engaging in romantic dynamics where there is sexual attraction triggers crazy changes in neurotransmitters and hormones, using the same reward neuro-pathway as cocaine!
When we’re “into” someone our serotonin drops, which triggers those anxious and obsessive post-date ruminations. At the same time, testosterone is heightened, which distorts our judgment.
The scariest thing was my willingness to neglect myself.
Unfortunately, all those hormones don’t automatically reconfigure the moment one’s brain realizes that a partner makes no sense.
Sure, none of Rob’s behaviors were dangerous or physically violent — and I am lucky that I was not confronted with more intense trauma. But the scariest thing was my willingness to neglect myself.
For me, the greatest irony is that I was completely aware that Rob was wrong all along. Yet that was part of his appeal.
“We can become addicted to seeking love from an unavailable partner,” says psychiatrist and author Dr. Mark Goulston. He explained that our desire to return to the situation again and again has to do with re-creating a childhood relationship, “hoping that it will turn out differently and fix us.”
In my case, I think I wanted an emotional alternative to the safety and support I’d always known. After growing up in a close and stable family, I was flirting with emotional danger and adventure. I think I wanted to show myself that I could change Rob — that I could be so easygoing and kind that he would eventually show me actual love.
I talked to therapist and writer Linda Carroll about this. Her take was a bit discouraging but it made sense. “Nature chooses for diversity, not relationship compatibility,” she said, adding that some studies find that we are attracted to people whose DNA is least like ours.
What is striking about Carroll’s take, and resonant with the insights of experts Goulston and Tatkin, is that biology seems to be the thing that can drive us all to fall for people who are wrong for us.
We’re told to “listen to our hearts” and to “trust our gut,” but it seems, ironically, that our physiology is sometimes directing us in a not-so-healthy direction. So what then?
I asked Carroll what she thought about all this.
“We can't simplify anything in this life, especially love,” she told me.
In Carroll’s opinion, finding a good partner requires a combination of four factors: biology, heart, head, and self-awareness.
In other words, our biology (e.g., our bodies — that animalistic sense of desire) might say yes, but we also need to check that against what Carroll calls “objective data.” “How do they interact with their family? Do they have long-term friends? Is their financial life in order? How do they speak of past struggles?” These were all questions that Carroll provided to me as good investigative tools to get this necessary “objective data.”
When it came to “objective data” on Rob, there were many red flags. I never met any of his friends and didn’t ever hear him talk about emotions. He said terrible things about his ex-girlfriend and had no relationship with his family. Plus, he made me feel like crap about myself, and the sex wasn’t even good. So whatever it was that propelled me toward Rob — whether biological, psychological, or something else — it was bad.
And it still feels bad. But each time I have the impulse to get mad at myself for making “mistakes,” I remind myself that it’s more productive to meditate and learn from this.
Dr. Goulston told me that most of us need to reach a “never again” moment in order to break the cycle of the chase — especially if it’s a pattern.
When I reflect on the Rob situation, I hope it’s not a pattern. I see frightening psychoanalytic dynamics at work. I can intellectualize them, and sometimes it’s stimulating and even instructive to do so.
But this whole experience has been a powerful teacher. Never before have I thought so rigorously about what I want for myself, what I want from an eventual relationship, what I want to change about myself in relationships, and even what I want from my family.
Now I can say that in all my relationships, I want to say what I want and need, even if it’s uncomfortable and feels like I’m making “a big deal.”
If you’re going through a relationship that makes you feel like shit, don’t make it worse by punishing yourself for having let someone treat you poorly. Accept it with radical honesty. Investigate it. Let it show you what you don’t want, and get some data about that for future reference.
And if you’re willing to take a piece of advice from a stranger, take it from me: Get out of that shitstorm as soon as you can.
*Not his real name.
Illustration by Chloé Bulpin, mbg creative