December 4, 2013

Why girls stay in emotionally abusive relationships (Warning: disillusionment ahead)

At the BlindGossip site, there's a series of four posts about an insecure young pop star and her boyfriend who, despite constantly demeaning and manipulating her, continues to enjoy her company. It's Demi Lovato, a singer I've heard of but never heard her music, and Wilmer Valderrama, the squat Hispanic dork from That '70s Show that used to be on 15 years ago.

Here is the most recent post in the series, where the website writer says that Demi reads the website, so guys, in the comments please tell her how great she is, and how she deserves 1000 times better than this ugly has-been slimeball. All four posts establish how emotionally demeaning he is toward her, and how she keeps caving in.

And just like the socially naive type that you might expect to live vicariously through celebrity drama websites, they all swoop in, showering her with effusive paragraph-long comments about how attractive, talented, popular, lovable, and worthy she is, and how she deserves 1000 times better than a dude named Wilmer.

And all are completely incredulous as to how she could continue to stay with a bum. If he were more attractive, wealthy, powerful, famous, violently dominant toward other males, etc. -- OK, a little constant demeaning might be the price she's willing to pay. But to stay with an across-the-board loser seems like an enigma to them, especially given how young, attractive, wealthy, famous, etc., she herself is.

I googled around and found similar puzzlement among males, females, young, old, liberal, conservative, etc. Everybody is completely clueless on this issue.

So I'll come right out and explain why -- girls who stay in these relationships crave the constant rescuing behavior, and the hyperbolic ego-reassurance, coming from those in their social circle whenever the girls engage in or hint at self-destructive behavior. They have a profound fear of abandonment by those who are supposed to be caring for them, so they constantly test them by degrading themselves, and making their social circle prove that they really do care and will swoop in to rescue and reassure them that they truly are lovable, worthy, deserving of so much better, and so on.

Now, these rescuers who are always being called upon, do not do so for other people they know -- because everyone else they know is not a hystrionic attention-seeker. The girl who purposefully lowers herself is trying to extract way more care and attention than her social circle would normally be prepared to give her. But because she's allowed herself to descend to such pathetic depths, they figure they can't just ignore her and continue to be her friend or relative.

In other words, such girls are emotional parasites on their social circle. If they're a celebrity, that extends to trying to extract ego reassurance from the entire society. It's shameful for her to degrade herself at all, but doubly shameful when she does so in order to parasitize the emotional reserves of those who are closest to her. Other people might need to draw on those reserves, and it's draining to the supplier every time they're called upon. Staying in an emotionally abusive relationship is one of the most selfish and manipulative behaviors a person could ever show. It's "fishing for compliments" through false humility, dialed up to 11.

Let's compare the ugly truth with some of the popular self-serving rationalizations, shall we?

1. The girl is terrified of being alone. Wrong: she can attach herself blindly to the next loser who walks down the hallway, who won't be emotionally abusive. Being in a relationship doesn't require him to be a demeaning manipulator -- does it get any more "no duh" than that?

2. The girl is inexperienced, and the seasoned jerk is taking advantage of easy prey. Guess again: these girls tend to be sexually and romantically precocious (and tend to get into drugs, which a naive angel would not).

3. The girl is insecure and desperate for attention, no matter how negative it is. Obviously, on one level. But she wants the attention from her social circle, not him. Craving attention doesn't require that it come in a demeaning and degrading form (no duh). It's not hard to find positive attention.

4. The girl has a desire beyond her control to "fix him," so she stays in order to nurture the sociopath into a kind soul. The impossibility of that task is obvious to anyone, no matter how delusional. Rather, giving this reason reflects the shameless grab for ego reassurance. She's looking for everyone to tell her that she's sacrificing her own well-being like some latter-day Mother Teresa, but girl, it just ain't worth it. It's naked self-righteousness, making herself out to be a martyr when she's just an emotional parasite.

Et cetera...

Why doesn't she move on to find a man who'll treat her right? Quite simply, she thinks that all men are unreliable scum. What would be the point in trying to receive heartfelt validation from a boyfriend? But she does expect her social circle to be comforting and reassuring, so she'll rely on them instead to give her feedback about how worthy and lovable she is. Yet she can't get a constant stream of that without regularly jeopardizing her emotional well-being.

Hence the never-ending cycle of drama in her life -- and it's not malingering or "crying wolf" either. She really is bent on a certain degree of self-destruction (but not so high that it would actually do her in -- that would halt the flow of reassurance, and that would suck).

She winds up only associating with the scummiest of men who have a red-blooded libido, not normal men who still have their balls intact. She has to give it up so that the guy will stay in the relationship; otherwise he'll bail before he gets to constantly demean her, and she won't be able to trigger the rescue behavior of her social circle. She has no intrinsic sex drive or joy for sex, though; it's only a means to the end of getting rescued from the ugly monster.

This also means that she will date men indiscriminately, meaning that any old scumbag will do. Demeaning treatment will get her the rescuing reassurance she craves from her social circle, and they don't care who the guy is. It's just, "He's demeaning you? Girl, you deserve 1000 times better than him, you're the bestest friend and the most beautiful person inside and out!" The interchangeable nature of her boyfriends reinforces her view that men are scum -- they're all the same, all substituteable slimeballs. But she chose them to play a faceless role (the jerk boyfriend who'll make her friends and family swoop in to rescue her), rather than for some distinct and individual mix of traits that only he has.

She will also wind up with lots of emotional tampon guy friends, and a gaggle of gay bffs, both of whom are too developmentally stunted to realize that she doesn't want a healthy rewarding relationship with a boyfriend. And the same goes for her girl friends -- only those who have that naive "swoop in" instinct, and not the more mature or cynical ones. (Fortunately for the parasite, most girls are not very mature or cynical.)

These are lessons that have to be learned the hard way by those who are or would be in this girl's social circle. And they're one of the most disillusioning experiences you could ever go through, so naturally a good deal of those who could learn, will not. Cognitive dissonance hurts.

For those who have a natural willingness to hear other people's cry for help, and do what they can to support them, it's disorienting to go through your first encounter with one of these girls. It opens your eyes to how easily taken advantage of an empathetic person can be these days. Good thing I'm only empathetic and not kneejerk sympathetic.

I could just sniff something out about a couple girls like this, in 8th grade and later in 9th or 10th grade. Then once you become aware of the possibility, you check everyone out from then on -- and sadly, at least during the '90s and the 21st century, most of these girls who give off signs of needing rescued are complicit in their own degradation. It's not the '80s anymore, when a girl may have been over-powered by a guy and raped, or otherwise have become a helpless victim.

So much of the social climate of the Millennial era has been dominated by this cult of fake victims. It turns out the guy didn't keep going after she'd said "No," or pried her legs apart when she'd tried to shut them and push him away. Nope, she just got into a drunken hook-up that she regretted the next day. (Remember that all those so-called cases involving "date rape drugs" turned out to be lies.) And Rodney King wasn't some well-intentioned bystander targeted by over-zealous cops. Nope, he was high on PCP and had been leading them on a long, high-speed chase. And AIDS wasn't the outcome of a homophobic rain cloud hovering over the Tenderloin, or hushed-up CIA labs -- nope, they were spreading that shit to each other, up the butt like perverts. Now the news comes out, too, that Matthew Shepard was likely killed by a couple of queer drug dealers, not redneck fag-bashers.

This whole tangled web of lies could only have been spun with the supporting branches of trust that had reached its peak in the late '80s, as folks tried to help one another out at the grassroots level, since the powers that be had proven to be too ignorant, too powerless, or too corrupt to do so for us. Petty criminals took advantage of that atmosphere of trust by presenting themselves as normal people, often in need of help ("Can you help me change this tire?").

But the final and most sickening betrayal was by all of these fake victims from the '90s onward. They weren't criminals, but they were more numerous and sucked more of your blood over the long term. It was pure intuition as a teenager that led me to keep those people at arm's length, but with the benefit of hindsight and hopefully some greater maturity, I can articulate it now.

If you do find yourself tied to such a person, though, like if they're family, what's the best response? I don't know, but I suspect telling them that you won't give them attention or respect until they get out of the relationship. Not in a mean-spirited way, just calmly and firmly, to let them know their manipulations won't work. For all I know, though, that might just drive them to even more self-destructive behavior, to call your bluff. Anyone with more experience being tied to such people, feel free to chime in. I try to avoid them at all costs.


  1. Have you read "Games People Play" by Eric Berne?

  2. I haven't. Interesting to note that it came out in 1964, based on ideas he'd formed in the late '50s. I wonder if mid-century people were going through something similar to our fake victim cult today. Not in an identity politics framework, obviously.

    The abandonment anxiety mixed with a lack of desire to connect to others (only wanting their periodic gushing reassurance), smells like symptoms of cocooning. When you're socially isolated, you don't get much feedback that other people care about you. But that same cocooning mindset keeps you from letting normal people get close and establishing enduring bonds.

    Shades of the juvenile delinquency chic of the 1950s? Mid-century culture was very melodramatic, maybe Berne said what a lot of others were thinking at the time -- enough melodrama already.

  3. Also worth noting Eric Berne's birth year -- 1910 (Greatest Gen), similar to someone born in 1969 (Gen X), as far as where in the cocooning/crime cycle they're born.

    The lack of open, informal, trusting, and intimate interactions during the mid-century must not have stood out much to the youngish people of the time, the Silents. And if observers were born too far back, they might also have felt right at home in the mid-century.

    Their formative years had to have been during the more unsupervised, outgoing, and rising-crime period of the '10s and '20s (and early '30s), to feel lifelong whiplash, socially and culturally.

    See also: Sloan Wilson, Betty Friedan.

  4. You make some good points, but this doesn't really suffice to explain those women in abusive relationships who have no close friends or even family members to turn to.

    It's not uncommon for controlling, abusive men to lock out other people from their girlfriend's or wive's lives.

    I think you're underestimating the *attraction* that these men hold for these girls.

    Sure they crave the drama and attention, but they are also usually genuinely attracted to these men. The corollary is that they are intensely unattracted to normal, well-adjusted, non-abusive men, as any guy who has tried to date one of these girls will discover. Non-abusive men bore them and may even appear non-sexual and repulsive.

  5. Hystrionic women at least have family, whether they're close by to give them a hug in person or not. And if they don't have friends, they always have workmates, dorm-mates, or perfect strangers who they don't mind revealing their dramatic life to, or blurting it out in TMI attention-seeking fashion.

    I don't see signs of attraction, when you control for other things. Like with Fez -- everybody chiming in at Blind Gossip says he's ugly, untalented, a has-been, slimy, creepy, not rich by Hollywood standards, etc.

    When women are attracted to demeaning types, there's usually something else there that makes us think of it as a pro vs. con balance.

    Someone like Demi Lovato doesn't appear to be attracted to her boyfriend at all, but more thrilled by all the chaos and rescuing that is in store for her.

    Guys who aren't demeaning, she wouldn't find unattractive -- that implies something akin to disgust or repulsion (whatever degree). Like you said, though, it's more like "meh, boring -- no drama to be had here, next." Not like "Eww, what's with his face?" Or "Eww, he has no job or money?" Etc.

  6. Whoa, Matthew Shepard.

    I didn't know that Shepard was HIV positive and used drugs or that his killer was queer.

  7. "I think you're underestimating the *attraction* that these men hold for these girls."

    No, that is a myth invented by the self-help industry, and stoked by the media, because a certain type of man wants to believe its true.

    Of course, a woman wants a man who can protect her. But this is not the same thing as women craving abuse - which they don't.

    Many years ago, I remember reading about a study done on women who write letters to serial killers. It found that they tended to be socially reclusive. This fits in with the blog author's argument that socially immature women, who want attention, are more likely to hook up with cruel men. (the study researchers also speculated that reclusive women, suffering from paranoia, believed that only a psychopath could protect them from a dangerous world).

    (sorry, I'm too distracted to look for the study myself, but I'd be interested in Dusk in Autumn's stance on why many women do write letters to serial killers)


  8. Over the past few years, there have been examples of some women faking cancer. The same mechanism is at work - faking a crisis to get love and attention. Consider this case:

    " “I left my cell phone on my nightstand every night in case she needed anything,” says Ward, the dean of faculty. “On bad days I’d tell her, ‘We are going to attack this. We are going to fight.’” When Bass was too sick to teach, they’d cover her classes. And they kept a steady stream of casseroles and smoothies going to her condo. “We’d visit and she’d be shaking, pale and so sick,” says Pope, Webb’s technology coordinator. At school Bass would cover her head—bald from chemotherapy—with a knit cap, and limp from the tumor in her foot.

    In October Webb students and faculty put together a team for Komen Knoxville Race for the Cure to benefit the local breast cancer charity affiliate. “Suzy’s Crew for the Cure,” they called it. But when race day came, Bass was too weak to even walk. “She just met us at the finish line so she could cross it,” says Pope. As Bass’s condition worsened, she sent an e-mail to Pope thanking her for her support and friendship, and in an attached document, she outlined her last wishes. She asked that she be cremated, her ashes scattered in the Cayman Islands, with no tears: “I want whoever is sprinkling to be enjoying friends, family and loved ones, laughing and just having fun,” she said.


    On April 21, Webb president Scott Hutchinson sat in his office, dumbfounded by the calls he’d received that day. Staffers from a school in Dallas, Georgia—where Bass once taught—had contacted him to expose what they claimed was Bass’s latest deception. An employee googled her former colleague to see what had become of her; she found the Knoxville News Sentinel article about the prom fund-raiser. Bass, the callers warned Hutchinson, had pretended to be a cancer patient during her tenure at their school—and at yet another one in Alabama.


    As news of Bass’s betrayal hit the hallways, emotions ranged from shock and rage to confusion and embarrassment. “I couldn’t help but think about the ‘end of chemo’ cake I’d baked her with a pink frosting ribbon,” remembers Moore. “That made me feel a little silly.” The entire Webb community had opened their hearts—and wallets—for Bass. Her freshman classes had even bought a refrigerator for her classroom where she kept Gatorade (hydration is key during chemotherapy). “I cried, I was mad, I had every emotion you could feel,” Pope says. When she broke the news to her daughter, Macy, the 13-year-old threw a breast cancer awareness band Bass had given her on the floor. “I can’t even look at this,” she said through tears. Teacher Amanda Rowcliffe, 47, thought of the night when Bass had called her, sobbing. “She said she’d just had her chemo port put in and was distraught about going to school with the ugly bandage showing,” Rowcliffe recalls. So she went out, bought and delivered a turtleneck to Bass’s home. “I felt so betrayed,” she says."


  9. And it goes on:

    "Her students pitched in for a pink iPod she could listen to during chemo. In the fall of 2005, the school nominated Bass for the prestigious Disney Teacher of the Year Award. “[Bass] may be the finest teacher/inspiration I have ever been associated with in 32 years of education,” Jim Gottwald, the Paulding County principal told the Athens State University newsletter. But within days, the principal of Bass’s previous school, Tanner High—who had seen an article about her nomination—called Paulding County. That prompted a months-long investigation, which revealed that Bass had forged a doctor’s name on a certificate of disability that she gave Paulding’s associate superintendent, and had told students she’d drop low test scores if they donated $100 or more to Relay for Life, another cancer fund-raising race."

    "arc Feldman, M.D., a world-renowned psychiatrist, has treated more than 100 women who have faked serious illness. Though he has never met Bass, he believes he has her diagnosis: Munchausen syndrome, a psychological disorder in which someone feigns or self-induces illness to get attention and sympathy. According to Dr. Feldman, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, and author of Playing Sick?, these people know that they are lying, but typically don’t know why they’re compelled to do so"

    Anyway, here's the link to the article:


  10. Some huge celebrity faked something big:

    The consensus, based on the hints dropped, is that it was Kylie Minogue faking breast cancer in the mid-2000s.

  11. Excellent post. Displays an unusually-sharp psychological insight.
    Keep up the good work!

  12. Manhattan Mongoloid12/8/13, 2:47 PM

    Wonder if Magic Johnson really has HIV?


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