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‘Why Do I Keep Dating Men Who Tear Me Down?’

Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast — which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

The Message

I would like to talk about how to break the cycle of coming back to the man that hurt me and keeps hurting me again and again. This man thinks that he belongs to the group of men called “high-value men.” It’s a term that I hadn’t really heard before I met this guy. Basically, it’s a man that has a stable, high-paid job; is in his 40s; dates only women younger than 30; has a great social status; is not married; has no kids. Basically, the man that takes care of himself from all sides, mentally, physically, spiritually, and financially. 

The Call

Esther Perel: As you hear your question again, would you ask it differently today? Would you ask it the same way?

Caller: I would probably ask the same way. I believe that I had this problem before. It took me a while to leave a toxic relationship. I’m not saying necessarily that this one is toxic in a way that the previous one was, because there was a physical and mental abuse, but there’s definitely a toxicity.

Esther: As defined by what, as you see it? 

Caller: Basically, all mistakes; it’s always my fault. I’m the one that’s blamed for everything. I’m the one who puts more effort into it, but yet still I’m the one that does the thing the wrong way. There’s lots of things that I shared vulnerably and that are being used against me.

Esther: So you are the villain and your partner is the saint. Everything that’s bad is you; everything that’s good is him. 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: And your question is about understanding why you keep going back to him, or wanting to understand what has brought you to be in relationships that devalue you and hurt you. Or all of the above? 

Caller: All of the above. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, right? What is it that keeps bringing me back to him and keeps letting him come back to me?

Esther: Can I ask you something? 

Caller: Yeah, absolutely.

Esther: How long did it take to go from you being the prize of this high-value individual to you being the demise? A few months? A few weeks? 

Caller: No, it’s been longer. The whole situation with this person just …

Esther: Two years? 

Caller: It’s been really not a typical dating or relationship situation because we live in two different parts of the world. Then we went our separate ways — he didn’t want to pursue anything. Then he came back to me. I was like, “Yeah, I liked you before, I like you now. I’m single. Let’s explore if there is a possibility that we can be together.” We share lots of things in common, But at the same time, there’s something that is just, from his perspective, wrong about me.

Esther: And this dynamic of you trying to be appreciated, valued, liked by someone that you have to win over. Is that familiar to you? 

Caller: I feel like I’ve always felt in any relationship, even in the home environment. I’m a middle child and I’ve been good at school. I’ve been good at basically everything that I was doing. But I was taking care of myself — nobody really paid attention to me just because I had good grades, I was athletic, I was doing sports, I was doing things right. So I think I was just looked over. I never heard any compliment from my family members, so I feel like I’ve been constantly trying to be appreciated by other people in other environments, not just in a relationship.

Esther: Did your parents compliment the other siblings? Or was that the culture of the house that you don’t bring butterflies to the head? 

Caller: I think it was the culture of the house. Even the relationship with my parents wasn’t good. I think it was just the dynamic because there wasn’t really space because of the things that were going on in our family.

Esther: So that’s an understatement when you say their relationship wasn’t good. 

Caller: It’s not. It really wasn’t good. There’s lots of traumas that I carry from my family and from my childhood that I am aware of, and I’ve been working on them.

Esther: And that travel with you — in your relationships with men, your intimate relationships with men?

Caller: I want to say “no,” but I believe that it definitely influenced me in a way. And especially when I’m looked over again, when I’m not appreciated.

Esther: But in the house, it was more, “Since you’re not a problem, we don’t have to pay attention.” In your relationship, you are the problem. 

Imagine that you’re listening to someone else who brings this question: I find myself in relationships where I am devalued, where I fight to get some recognition, some appreciation. If I’m made to be the problem, then at least I get attention, but it’s negative attention, and I’ve somehow learned that negative is better than no attention. And I am drawn to high-value individuals. Who even assesses oneself like this? What is this product evaluation? 

Caller: I haven’t heard it before. He came up with that status of himself.

Esther: I had a fantasy that the moment you hear such a thing, you’d be running away to begin with, rather than running toward. I mean, that in itself is quite a self-description. 

So you were listening to this other young woman who basically presents this and says, “Here I am — somehow, the more I am put down, and the more I get emboldened to fight for the recognition even more so from the very person who is denying it to me. Why am I doing this? What is it from home and from my experience and the society I live in that makes me so susceptible to this and to being impressed by someone who has put themselves on the top shelf with criteria that are very little relational?” Basically, “I’m a good catch.” What used to be the simple language for this new denomination.

I understand that there are lots of things you won’t tell me in one conversation about what happened at home. I respect that. And at the same time, in your question, what is it that I bring with me from my experience at home? How is the past collapsing with the present? 

Caller: So I believe that that’s something that I saw and I’m familiar with and that’s why it feels comforting, even though it’s not a comfort, right?

Esther: You saw it between who and who? 

Caller: With my parents.

Esther: And who was in which role? 

Caller: My mom was the victim, and my father was the one blaming my mom for everything. He basically abused her mentally, physically, for many years. I grew up in that environment. I saw it with my own eyes. Maybe it’s something that it’s so familiar, something that I know, and that’s why I’m choosing to stay — because it’s me who’s choosing to stay, right? Because I have the option to leave, and I just don’t know how to.

Esther: And how to do differently from your mom. 

Caller: Yeah, exactly.

Esther: What was it like? Would you say to yourself, “Mom, stand up, Mom, why don’t you leave him?”

Caller: Yeah, those are all the questions that I’ve been asking my mom since I was maybe 12, 13 years old, when I started to realize what was happening in our family. I was like, “Mom, can we just pack our bags and leave? This is not good for you and this is not good for us.”

The only answer that I got from my mom whenever I asked those questions was, “I have four kids. I have nowhere to go. Nobody’s gonna take in a single mother with four kids. How am I going to take care of you?” But I’m not in that exact situation, right? I’m still single. I don’t have kids. It should be easy for me to stand up for myself.

Esther: A child who sees the abuse, violence, the degradation, wants more, wants better, but somewhere is struggling to actually allow themselves to have it. Because it’s as if they have some kind of guilt about outdoing the parent, having it better than the parent.

As you, as you’re saying, “I could leave. I don’t have four children. I am single. Why am I glued there? What is holding me there? Why don’t I do what I always dreamt she would do? Something about that doesn’t make sense to me. Rationally, it doesn’t make sense. But emotionally, it’s something that is holding me back.” So I was wondering — sometimes a child feels too guilty to actually have more than the very parent that they wanted more for.

Caller: I understand, but as I said, I believe that I do deserve more.

Esther: Rationally. But we’re not talking rationally. Rationally you wouldn’t be here. 

Caller: That’s true.

Esther: We’re here because you are living a contradiction internally, an internal conflict, and you say, “What is the matter with me? Why am I doing this? I know better and yet I don’t.”

Caller: That’s very true.

Esther: What did you just see? 

Caller: Nothing. I’m just thinking.

Esther: Think out loud. 

Caller: It’s just, I believe that it has a lot to do with my past and with the environment I grew up in. Even my siblings, they already have their families and I know that they are happy, but their marriage is not the best. I see that and, again, I keep asking myself, “Shy would you choose to live in this situation and stay in this situation when you have the option to leave?”

Esther: And you’re saying “It’s because this is what I know”? 

Caller: I believe it’s because it’s something very familiar to me. Something that I’m used to. I don’t know any different.

Esther: What happens when you meet people who appreciate you and don’t just go around putting you down so they can elevate themselves?

Caller: I keep those people around me and I try to spend time with them, and I have really deep friendships with those kind of people.

Esther: Men too? 

Caller: Yeah, I have men friends as well that are my cheerleaders and are there for me and see the good things in me.

Esther: And romantic partners?

Caller: Not really, at least from my side. I don’t consider them as romantic …

Esther: But with romantic partners, can you welcome someone who appreciates you? I remember a woman who used to tell me, like you, “I know better, what the hell am I doing there?” but there was something about winning over the very person that was putting them down. Which was the reverse of what I described before of “Do I have a right for better?” It was “I’ll do better.”

Caller: No, I have no problem, even with this man. I’m trying to be very supportive and appreciative. But even though I do those things, I feel like it’s not enough and my appreciation is not appreciated. I don’t feel good in those kind of situations.

Esther: Of course not. You know, you’re pumping yourself empty while you’re pumping somebody else up for whom this will not be enough. 

Caller: Exactly.

Esther: But sometimes, when a child sees one parent trying to pacify the other, trying to be appreciated by the other, trying to cook the best meals for the other, trying, trying, trying, trying, and not succeeding … there is something for some children that says, “I’ll do better. I will succeed where Mom did not. I will make this person who turns against me turn toward me. I will make this person see what I can offer them and appreciate it.” Then you get in there and you keep trying and you keep trying and you keep trying.

Caller: That’s exactly my case. I’m just trying and trying, constantly improving in all ways. Every single thing that he wants me to improve, I improve. And everything he asks, I just do, just to make him like me and appreciate me.

Esther: So that? 

Caller: I will feel appreciated.

Esther: So that?

Caller: I will be liked and loved.

Esther: So that? 

Caller: I can say that I succeed.

Esther: And that means what? I succeed at what? You’re there. 

Caller: I won, basically. I did better than my mother.

Esther: And I was able to change my parents’ relationship. And in order to change my parents’ relationship, for some reason I think I have to go and copy it. Put myself into the same miserable bin from which I then climb out. Then I know for a fact that I was able to change what happened between them and to do better.

Caller: That’s deep. That’s true.

Esther: Stay with that for a moment. I have no idea if it’s true. I’m thinking out loud; remember, we were exploring together. Can we go back to the little girl that kept saying, “I’ll never live like this. I will never be in this kind of a shitty, violent, abusive relationship. It won’t be me”? 

Caller: Yeah, I thought that I could do better.

Esther: Do you see her, the little girl? 

Caller: Yeah, absolutely.

Esther: How old is she? 

Caller: She’s young. She’s very young.

Esther: Way too young for this. And where is she? 

Caller: She’s scared at home.

Esther: Can you stand next to her for a moment? And just hold her hand. You see her? 

Caller: I do.

Esther: Mm, talk to me. Because I don’t see her; you see her. 

Caller: I really can do better, and — and I don’t have to repeat my parents’ mistakes and my mom’s mistakes. There’s something better and greater waiting for me. I don’t have to prove to anyone that I can do better; I just should do better.

Esther: And for that, I have to imagine that I don’t have to repeat it first in order to be able to transcend it, to change it. 

Caller: Absolutely. I know what it feels like, so I don’t need to go through it again.

Esther: Are you still holding her hand?

Caller: I believe so.

Esther: If you said to her, “Come with me, you don’t have to stay there, and you don’t have to relive it in order to know that you have moved beyond it. You don’t have to create abusive relationships to prove to yourself that you can be outside of one.”

Caller: We’ll just walk away together.

Esther: Where are we going? 

Caller: Well, first, somewhere where I feel safe.

Esther: Yes. Safe means? 

Caller: Safe is where I can just be myself and I don’t need to prove to anyone that I’m somebody else. Where things that I have and things that I can offer are enough.

Esther: Safe is where I don’t just hear you tell me all the things that I need to change, improve, and correct because I am the deficient one and you are perfect as is. Hot or cold? 

Caller: Definitely hot.

Esther: Safe is where it’s not that you think you are sliced out of Jupiter’s thigh and I am in a project of improvement all the time and all the time experiencing that I’m not enough. 

Caller: Yeah, exactly.

Esther: Safe is where it’s not so obvious that you bring everything to me and I bring nothing to you. I end up feeling this way, without ever mentioning what I may have offered you, brought to you, introduced you to. Let’s keep going. It’s very, very granular, safe

Caller: Yeah, where I can express my feelings and my needs without being selfish or labeled as selfish. Safe is where I can keep my autonomy and do decisions that I want to do, not what other people want me to do. Where I can say what’s in my heart and not be scared that I won’t be understood, where I can show my emotions without being oversensitive and emotionally unstable.

Esther: First of all, everything you just said is such a beautiful description of what safe looks like, feels like, and what you are invited to pursue. Let’s be very, very clear with that. That is the life or the relationship you are to pursue. 

Your partner — what do you call him? Boyfriend, partner? 

Caller: I somehow call him boyfriend, but I’m just a friend.

Esther: All right. Everything this man is criticizing, judging, putting down, distorting in you is what he can’t tolerate within himself. 

Caller: I know. I know.

Esther: So if you know that, then you are a wonderfully rational person who has a lot of wonderful feelings. You should let yourself be guided by your reason. You’re perfectly smart, thoughtful, understanding, you see it all. You don’t trust yourself anymore because you’ve been put down by a person who is too insecure to be able to accept a full person next to him because he’s disavowing all those parts inside of him and putting them all onto you. 

Now, that is not a viable relationship. When you decide to not see him anymore, there’s a good chance that he may also become more vindictive. He will put you down for not wanting to be with him because he’s such an extraordinary high-value person. But the main part for you is to know, I don’t have to re-create it. I don’t have to mirror the dynamic I grew up in, and the shitshow I grew up in, in order to then know that I’m finally able to do better. Of course, it feels more intense that way. If I’m in it and I manage to turn him around, to make him see me and finally appreciate me, then I’ll know for a fact that I have been successful at creating a better relationship than my parents. That’s not the only way to do it. It’s not about getting hooked into finding someone who puts you down and then proving to them how phenomenal you are so that they can finally turn around and say, “Oh, my darling, how could I have missed that? You’ve been here all along.”

I’m so thankful you’re here. By the way, this doesn’t warrant another conversation. At least not a conversation with him. There won’t be any different conversation. The conversation is with yourself, saying, “If I want to do better, I don’t have to go back in order to transform it.I just have to look for a different relationship. I can do it with my friends, so I can do it with my lovers.” It’s interesting how we are able to change the dance, the pattern with our friends, but it’s a challenge with our lovers because that’s the relationship that mirrors the one we have with our parents the most, our caregivers.

Caller: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Esther: At some point, you say: “Dear Mom and Dad.” What would you write? 

Caller: I would say, “Thank you for showing me what life should not look like. Thank you for allowing me to appreciate the nice things in life. Absolutely, thank you for raising me.” Because of them I am who I am. Without them I wouldn’t be here. “Thank you for showing me what I don’t want in life.”

I’ve already done this exercise. I wrote a letter to my father from the perspective of a little girl. I was very emotional when I was writing it because it just brought me back to old times where I didn’t have the power, the ability to change anything. I wanted so much, but I just couldn’t.

Esther: It’s a strange thing that we do. Because when we look back at a situation where we felt so helpless, so little, so not able to change what was in front of us, we think, Now that I’m an adult, I can finally change it. So we go back to the scene of the crime, so to speak, with the idea that this time I’m going to do better. So I re-create the same situation over and over again, and I practice mastery. I practice as if I can finally turn this thing around. But as a result, you find yourself living the same relationship as they had. That’s not your intention, and that’s where you find yourself. And then you’re confounded and you’re saying, “How is this possible?” It’s happening because I’m trying to undo it, to transcend it, to transform it. But as a result, I end up constantly back in the same pit, and I don’t need to.

It’s more easily said than done, but every time you find yourself going back there, you’ll hold the hand of the little girl. You’ll remind her that in order to live a different relationship, you don’t have to first go back to the same relationship.

More From This Series

  • ‘Where Does the “Evil Voice” in My Head Come From?’
  • ‘Why Does Part of Me Want to Cheat?’
  • ‘I Lost My Husband to Suicide. How Do I Recover Who I Was Before?’

Esther Perel , 2024-03-11 16:00:14

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