I can name certain themes that arise among the clients that I work with. I can’t say whether these are just very common themes or if these themes seem to be predominant among the individuals that find themselves on my couch. And, I also want to be clear that the issue I am describing may or may not be related to life with HIV.
Here’s how a client I’ll call Justin described the issue I am focusing on here:
“I have been dating this woman for a few months now. I really like her a lot. When it’s good between us, it’s really good. We talk, we laugh, we have fun. But that can change from moment to moment. She gets mad about little things, sometimes I have no idea what I did. She gets sad, and I don’t know how to help her, and then she gets mad again because I wasn’t supportive enough. When I am away for my job for a couple of days, if I don’t text her constantly, she freaks out over that too. We can suddenly find ourselves in an argument, and I mean a big argument.
“Last weekend, we went away together. We ended up bickering most of the time. This wasn’t right, that wasn’t right. Constantly accusing me of saying or doing something that ticked her off or showed that I didn’t care about her.
“She seems to have the same kind of issues with her friends, the few she has.”
“I am really trying to make this relationship work,” he went on to say. “But let me tell you it’s a heck of a lot of work. I feel like her mental health is resting on my shoulders. And that’s additional stress that may not be great for my mental health.”
After we talked for awhile about their relationship, Justin said something that summarized the issue well.
“My friends accuse me of going from troubled person to the next. That’s a little harsh. But I think they have a point. What do you think my problem is?”
A client I’ll call Mindy told me a story with the same theme:
“I’m dating a guy who I really enjoy being around. At least when he’s at his best. He’s funny in a goofy kind of way. He likes to try new things, just like I do. We have great conversations. That is when he’s at his best.
“But he’s not always at his best. There are all too many times when he shows up late, and has clearly had a bad day at work. It’s written all over him. When this happens, he can be really nasty. He tears into me, criticizes my looks, my intelligence, the way I dress. Just awful. And if he has a few drinks, forget about it.
“And then he can be fine the next day, all apologies. But the damage is done. With the HIV diagnosis I am dealing with, my self-esteem can be a little shaky already, and I need to keep my stress down. He knows that. But when he is in that state of mind, he doesn’t seem to care.”
And then Mindy said, “I am going to be painfully honest. I seem to gravitate toward losers, abusers, and bad boys. What makes me do that?”
Experience has taught me a lot about why my clients are attracted to troubled people. I am going to share what I have learned with you.
Not Sure Why You Are Attracted to Troubled People? Take a Look in the Mirror
That’s a big question. Let me emphasize: I have this discussion with clients across the spectrum; it is not related to gender. But always the ultimate question: What makes me so attracted to trouble people? The answer is far from simple.
Let me give you my perspective, based on my experiences with my clients:
First, here are some of the words that pop up when I am working with clients to uncover what’s behind the troubled relationships they find themselves in. Admittedly, there is some overlap between some of these words. As you read through them, do some self-exploration to get a feel for which of these words resonate with you. Here goes:
Power. When somebody needs you, that gives you a measure of power over them. There are those among us who need to feel powerful, often out of their own insecurity. If your power is derived from the hold you have on someone who can’t take care of themselves emotionally, then you are trading power for peace of mind. That’s a big price to pay to feel powerful.
Self-esteem. Low self-esteem, that is. Not feeling good about yourself, not feeling lovable, not feeling like an effective person that others would want to be with. Low-self-esteem may be related to perceived physical deficiencies, like weight or lack of traditional good looks. Or perceived lack of success, compared to other people. Often, clients with low self-esteem will say something to the effect of “I don’t know if I can do any better.”
Guilt. Some people just naturally feel guilty, maybe over things they have done in the past, because of the thoughts they have in their minds, or because they have been made to feel responsible for things that were outside of their control. And what happens to guilty people? They get punished. Hence… attracting that person who is bringing a lot of hard work, and emotional pain, but not a whole lot of joy, to your life.
Distraction. From your own unresolved issues. You have probably observed that troubled people often find each other. I have certainly seen that with clients who don’t want to deal with their inner conflicts and so, instead, they find a troubled person they can turn into a project. That project can be so consuming that they don’t have to focus on their own issues, and wouldn’t have the time or energy if they could.
Narcissism. Look at me, look at me, what do you think of me? Narcissists need to be the center of attention. An emotionally troubled person may be more susceptible to the narcissist’s need for attention, and be pulled into their constellation, one of many planets circling the sun. Keep in mind that the troubled person may cause the narcissist no end of misery, but the narcissist gives back in kind by pushing buttons that keep the other person on edge. I’m outta here if you do that again. No, don’t leave me! And they’re off to the races.
Empathy. Too much that is. Feeling what other people feel is a gift, that is, until it isn’t. It is possible to have so much empathy that you can’t stop yourself from wallowing in other people’s misery. And, consequently, feel that you are obligated to stay in that dark place with them. People with too much empathy are susceptible to being manipulated and trapped in an unhealthy relationship.
Altruism. This goes hand in hand with empathy. That desire to announce to the world, “give me your tired, your poor…” can cause you to think you owe your undying loyalty to a troubled person, that this is your mission in life. Have you thought of doing some volunteer work? Before you save the world, it may be time to save yourself.
Damaged goods. I often have this discussion with clients who have issues like obesity, or are living with a chronic condition like HIV, or are in recovery. They may feel like their own challenges have rendered them damaged goods, and consequently are fortunate that anyone would consider being in a relationship with them. The result is putting up with a lot of unhappiness, and thinking that is the best you can do.
Abandonment. Your fears of abandonment, that is. While the person you are involved with may have abandonment issues that complicate your relationship, your own abandonment issues can also keep you involved with a trouble person. A client said it to me this way: “If your broken, then at least you won’t go away.”
Boundaries. To be more specific, lack of interpersonal boundaries. One of the hallmarks of a healthy relationship is knowing where I end and you begin. Being aware of what I can help with and where you need to help yourself. Where I am being supportive and where I am enabling. Some people just don’t have healthy boundaries with other people. They attract troubled people like heat-seeking missiles.
Codependence. This term really encapsulates some of the other signs that I described. Codependence is basically placing someone else’s needs above your own. Some people are naturally codependent. Growing up in a family with substance abuse can contribute to codependence. Codependent people experience a special brand of misery, being the abused victim while also going out of their way to enable the victimizer.
Addiction. I am using this term here because it is one I often hear from clients when they describe troubled relationships, e.g. “I seem to be addicted to certain types of people.” Addiction to another person, where you place their needs ahead of your own, is also referred to as codependence.
Story. Your story, that is. I often find that clients in a relationship with a troubled person are working out some kind of story from the past. For example, if I finally get an emotionally-abusive person to love me… Or, if I can finally fix someone who can’t cope with life… Or, if I can finally make up for what I couldn’t do for… You get my drift here. These stories are often unconscious. But they can assert themselves in relationships in ways that can keep you stuck on a treadmill, trying to prove but never quite succeeding. Over and over. Here’s where the addiction kicks in.
Did any of these words strike a chord with you?
If so, you may be on your way to recognizing what might be keeping you in an unhappy relationship with a troubled person. Or what compels you to find the next one after your latest relationship inevitably goes south.
Troubled Love Interest? Watch for the Signs.
Speaking of themes, my clients who talk to me about being in a relationship with a troubled person often identify certain similarities in the ways in which this person behaves or in their interactions with them. These come up in our conversations because they are the major causes of unhappiness in a relationship with an emotionally troubled person, and what ultimately either keeps the two of them living in misery or causes them to break up.
Here are some of the signs that the person you are dating may be emotionally troubled:
Frequent bickering. Over the simplest things. The choice of restaurant. A perceived slight. A comment that was not understood as intended. Bickering that can quickly lead to a full-on argument, or the silent treatment. Most likely, you are also being made to feel at fault for the cause of whatever you bickered about.
Criticism. Having criticism unrelentingly directed toward you. Everything from what you wear to your behavior to the way you live your life. Directed at you with apparently no concern for the damage it might be doing to your or to your relationship.
Constant demands. As one client said, “I can never seem to do enough.” This is what happens when you are with an especially needy person. The demands just keep coming.
Fears of abandonment. An individual with fears of abandonment may engage in behaviors such as constantly needing you to check in and tell them where you are and what you are doing, question why you need to do something that doesn’t involve them, and accuse of wrongdoing when you return. (Here’s a quick reality check: Narcissists and individuals with abandonment issues have a way of finding each other and making each other miserable. So take a look at what’s going on with you here as well.)
Threats. One after another. Threats might include saying they will leave you, but it might also include threats to do damage to your reputation or to your other relationships. Or even to do something to harm you or themselves. Red alert!
Making excuses. For behavior. And never taking responsibility. People who make excuses constantly attribute their behavior to forces outside of themselves – including you! – for causing them to behave badly. This might include making you think their bad behavior is all in your imagination, or evidence of misguided thinking on your end. This is also known as gaslighting.
Alienating your friends or family. Talking bad about them. Criticizing them. Refusing to see them. Doing what you can to prevent you from seeing them. And being rude to them. A partner who alienates your friends or family does not have your best interest at heart, to say the least.
Controlling behavior. Directly or indirectly making sure that everything you do, the way you live, your plans for the future, are all about their wants and needs. Controlling behavior may be direct and aggressive – you better!!! – or much more subtle and manipulative. Either way, you can find yourself trapped in a life your partner designed.
Withholding behavior. Holding back on affection, participation, communication… whatever will most make you feel sufficiently punished and repentant. Over and over. (While you’re at it, also consider your own withholding behavior. Is there a tit for tat going on here?)
And Finally, Some Hard Questions for You:
Is your relationship benefitting you? I often ask my client to think about what they are getting out of this relationship. It’s a hard question, and clients don’t always like it when I ask. But a relationship comes down to: Is your pain worth the gain? If all your relationship brings to your life is unhappiness, it’s time to ask whether it is benefitting you or your partner.
Is your relationship benefiting your partner? I am going to be honest here. I have at times listened to a client talk to me about their relationship and I couldn’t help but wonder how good my client was for their partner, and if my client wasn’t the one causing the damage. But if you suspect you are enabling negative behavior, the most obvious example being addiction, or causing your partner unhappiness because of your own issues, or otherwise pushing a button in your partner that is in turn keeping them engaged when it may not be to their best interest, then you may be part of the problem. Always if you are having problems in your relationship, ask yourself: What is my role in all of this? As my mom used to say, “it takes two to tango.”
Is it time for us to get some help as a couple? Meeting with a couples counselor can help you and our partner to identify the barriers to having a healthy relationship. Couples counselors are trained to help each of you identify what you see as the barriers to happiness, as well as to move toward repairing your communication. As well as what each of you needs to work on individually. And yes, a couples counselor may help you to identify why you can’t be together.
Can I steer them toward getting help and then stick around to support them? I have had clients who had partners who had experienced trauma, or were suffering from mental illness or addiction, or who were living with personality disorders. Once this was identified, they then had to ask themselves whether they were willing and able to be there for their partner while they underwent treatment to get better. This is a big question. And it requires some soul searching. But if you can’t be fully there for your partner, if you don’t think you can handle the ups and downs and the hard work that will be required of you, then it’s important to straightforward. This isn’t something you can fake or do half-heartedly.
Is it time for me to get help? Back to the themes that I described earlier on. I will say this as clearly as possible. Sure, it may seem like your partner is the one with the problems. However, if you constantly find yourself in relationships with troubled people – abusive, demanding, controlling, etc. – then you have some of your own issues to get a handle on. A therapist can help you to identify what’s going on inside of you that may be attracting troubled people like a heat seeking missile. Therapy is hard work. But it’s worth it to finally gain some perspective on what’s getting in the way of having healthy relationships, so that you can get yourself on the road toward more healthy relationships.
Wake up! To your life. Your life is too important to be in a relationship with someone who steals your peace. Take a look at yourself. Take a look at your relationship. If you and your partner aren’t helping to make each other better as individuals while you also grow as a couple, then it’s time to start asking some hard questions.
Gary McClain, MS, PhD, LMHC, CEAP, is a psychotherapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He often works with couples who are living with a chronic condition. He maintains a website, www.JustGotDiagnosed.com.