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Good Girls, Bad Boys, and Relationship Power Dynamics

Do we always have to follow the same patterns?

I left an abusive relationship almost 10 years ago, and I’ve been through counseling, therapy, a domestic abuse recovery program, and I’m still not completely over what happened to me. The process has helped me understand what went on, learn more about myself, and to rebuild my life. Having had the chance to learn about the structure of abuse, and to examine my own feelings about myself and about relationships, I’ve figured a lot of shit out. This knowledge has given me more confidence, and with confidence I’m less inclined to tolerate other people’s crap. So instead of getting caught up in destructive thought patterns about whether or not I’m good enough, or if I should be trying to please someone else, I’ve allowed myself the space to reflect and identify patterns that I don’t want to repeat.

When I attended the recovery group, there was a formal schedule for each session, but still time for us to deviate from the course material and talk about our own experiences. A question that kept coming up was “why does this keep happening to me?” as most of us, myself included, had ended up in more than one abusive relationship. To many of us, it seemed that abusers seek out vulnerable partners, or that some women are naturally attracted to “bad boys.” We never came up with a complete answer, but we did take away the message that we had to break the pattern.

I don’t know if that was good enough or not. The program seemed to guide us towards the solution of considering “nicer” men, and avoiding the so-called “bad boys,” but it’s not that simple. You don’t choose who you’re attracted to, or who you fall in love with. But these “bad boys” are a menace, and we don’t seem to be able to help ourselves where they are concerned. So what the hell is going on? Why do we want what we know is bad for us?

Part of the answer came to me during a training session I attended for my day job on the subject of understanding victims of domestic abuse. It contained a lot of new (for me) material, and it focussed heavily on the psychological side of the abuse. We came to a section on Stockholm Syndrome, and I was intrigued. I read ahead in the notes and I thought “Oh my god, this is me!” A lot of things fell in to place at that moment, and it got me thinking some more about the “bad boy” problem and if it was connected in some way.

I’ve discussed the role of Stockholm Syndrome in another article, concentrating on how it encourages “love” for the abuser, because the victim is subconsciously employing a survival strategy. But it’s worth exploring in more detail some of the other reasons we might get drawn to “bad boys,” and why they seem inescapable.

We’re attracted to power, especially if we feel powerless ourselves. People who have left abusive relationships, or who have experienced abuse of any form, are likely to have been affected in a profound way. They might have low self-esteem, and feel inherently “lower-value” than others. We’re attracted to what we aspire to be like, and we try to gain these traits through proximity and association. So, entering into a relationship with a “bad boy” is one way of achieving that end.

A person’s history influences their future, and we often don’t learn from our mistakes. What’s familiar, a known quantity can feel like the correct option to pursue. If you’ve not known anything different, then how can you choose something that you have no knowledge of? I discovered, after leaving an abusive relationship a decade ago, that I just didn’t know what a healthy relationship looked like. I had some toxic traits of my own that I needed to work on, and I needed to re-evaluate my sense of ‘healthy’ and ‘normal.’ Before that, I’d just been following the same old patterns.

Those who have been abused before, especially as children, may seek to re-enact the abuse, either by becoming an abuser, or by repeatedly being re-victimised. This pattern does not have to stem from an abusive childhood – once you’re in the cycle, it’s hard to get out. My first abusive relationship began in adulthood, and looking back I’m able to identify the grooming tactics that my abuser used to draw me in and keep me under his control. Other “bad boys” might rely on similar tactics, seemingly identifying those who seem vulnerable and exploiting their weaknesses.

People who end up repeating the same relationship mistakes over and over tend to ignore Red Flags. They know that they exist, they see the problem and either decide that it’s something that can be ‘fixed,’ or they overlook it completely because they only want to see their partner’s good side — a kind of wishful thinking that has painful consequences.

And sometimes victims just don’t see it coming. This is because they have a distorted sense of what is safe, and what is dangerous. They might select to follow those who “seem nice,” not realising that they are actually harmful. If your life has been marked by abuse, your internal scale of healthy to abusive behaviour is broken. You genuinely can’t detect the signs of a controlling partner.

I feel that the last two points are especially relevant for me. There were plenty of Red Flags that I just sort of hoped would go away, and others that I believed I could iron out. This belief that I can fix broken partners is also a reason I’ve stayed in crappy relationships for too long. And other times I’ve ended up in relationships with people that seemed alright, but then turned nasty. It’s like I was incapable of deciphering the cues that give information about a partner’s motivation and character, and I’d never figure out exactly what it was I should be looking for. And so I’d end up in the same situations all over again. It became a habit, something that just was –— I didn’t feel like I had a choice in it.

Growing up, I, as is the same for many children but especially girls, was taught to be polite and obedient. And I got yelled at a lot by my teachers and parents, for fairly minor things. My parents were over-protective and did not allow me to learn from my mistakes — because I was never permitted to be in situations where I might make a mistake. This played out into my adult years, manifesting as an inability to say no, and a simultaneous fear and reverence for those in power. I was rubbish at standing up for myself, and in work, relationships and life generally, I just went with the flow, allowing others to make the decisions. Those decisions were not always in my best interests, and I felt frustrated about it, but I didn’t know how to do anything about it.

And so we see that the Good Girls / Bad Boys dichotomy is real. Abusive men (usually) and submissive women (usually) end up forming a symbiotic relationship, one that is maintained from one couple to the next, unless the cycle is broken. And it’s really hard work to do that. You need to work on yourself, both in terms of self-care and changing your mindset, and you need to change the way you interact with other people. That’s difficult — you’re undoing a lifetime of conditioning, set against the backdrop of the feeling that it is terribly wrong to do things differently.

Abusers need to change, too. But that’s trickier. You can’t force someone else to change, and indeed, most abusers probably quite enjoy the power they wield over others. But what we can do is educate as many people as possible of the tactics they use, and make it socially unacceptable for them to behave in those ways, so that they are forced to change, or at least that they are unable to abuse anymore.

I’ve learnt that the best way to keep myself safe and happy is to sort myself out first. Prior to the abusive relationships, I was happy, confident and outgoing. All of that was stripped away, but in building it back up, I feel that I’ve regained the old me, and regained the power over my own life. And that’s the important bit — I’m master of my own destiny, nobody else is. A part of this is recalibrating my idea of how I should conduct myself. There is such a thing as “too nice,” and I was exhibiting it. It’s like painting a target on your back for abusers and creeps to aim at. It’s been hard work, and I’ve upset a few people along the way, but it’s been the right ones. I feel that people respect me more because of the changes I’ve made in my life, and I respect myself enough to refuse to be treated like dirt by anyone, let alone potential suitors. And as I grew and improved myself, I found that I no longer had that attraction to power and danger. I allowed myself to be powerful and I no longer need external validation. I wouldn’t say that I “cured” myself of my attraction to bad boys, but rather I changed the person that I am to someone who finds sexiness in other, better, more exciting things.

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