Dec 132010

It’s the questions about relationships that break my heart.

A lot of sex questions can be resolved simply by giving an answer: no, you can’t get addicted to your vibrator; no, there are no ill health consequences related to masturbation, only ill health consequences related to shame about masturbation; yes, if you’re on hormonal birth control it’s safe (like 95% safe) for your partner to ejaculate inside you, but if you’d like to back up with a condom, that’s cool too; yes, Saran wrap is actually effective as a dam during cunnilingus – but only the regular kind, not the microwavable kind; yes, children, even infants, experience arousal and orgasm.

Answers like that are factual and easy to give, and they tend to land inside people like brandy, spreading unpredictable warmth and ease. I love giving those answers.

There’s some sex stuff that’s harder to answer: never had an orgasm? Systematic desensitization plus self-reflection, and it’s easier to describe than to do. Sex addiction? No you can’t be “addicted” to sex but it’s a handy shortcut term for people who don’t understand compulsive behavior as a strategy for managing negative affect. No desire? Yeah, it happens to most people at some point in their lives and here’s a list of things that may be causing it and another list of things you can do about it – again, it’s easier to describe than to do.

Answers like that are like handing someone a toolbox and saying, “Good luck.” I don’t feel great about it, but it’s SOMETHING, and hell an educator can’t fix all the problems in the world.

But the relationship stuff.

Someone asked, “Why do we always fall for people who are bad for us?”

Answer: we don’t, not all of us, not always. Those of us who do can learn to fall for people who are good for us.

Early in our relationship lives, we fall for people who replicate our family of origin. (I said that in class and there was a widespread groan of horror.) We fall for folks who obey the rules of attachment we learned before we were, say, 4 years old.

For some people, that’s okay. But if you had a fucked up family of origin, you’re going to recapitulate that fucked up dynamic until… until you change. Sometimes change happens spontaneously, but mostly it’s deliberate and it’s EFFORTFUL.

And by effortful, I mean you have dig through layers of hardened earth, uproot your own psychology, and replant it somewhere less toxic.

I tell folks to read David Richo’s How to Be an Adult. Does the title feel patronizing to you? Some people have said that to me, but to me it’s just like, “Yep. That’s what we need. An instruction manual.” And that’s what it is – a how-to guide for putting down the grief and the trauma and creating space for love.

It isn’t easy, but it is simple: grief with blame turned inward is depression; grief with blame turned outward is rage; grief without blame is how you heal.

So we don’t always fall for people who are bad for us. We fall for people who meet our expectations of what partnerships are made of. Our expectations were shaped, when we were young, by our families. Once we’re adults, we have the opportunity to change those expectations. Deep change requires time and suffering, suffering like the ache you experience when you come in out of the cold.

And does any of that actually help the person who asked the question? Well, at least I’ve suggested a book they can read – which is like pointing out a toolbox they might try. But the pain that lives in the question is so deep, the loneliness, the trauma, the sense of hopelessness… all I’ve offered is the assertion that change is possible. But have I offered any motivation for them to believe me?


emily nagoski

  5 Responses to “why do we fall for people who are bad for us?”

Comments (5)
  1. I’ve been reading your blog for a while.
    And though your frankness about the mechanics of sex just revealed how much of a Catholic school girl I am, you’ve truly been a source of so much actual non-condescending help.

    but this entry (though I’m sure reading as much literature as I was required to as an English major,) hit home like anything.

    thank you very much. I feel like I want to write you long letters and ask so many questions. but i think this is enough fan mail for a while.

    thank you again.

  2. oops i meant reading as much literature gave me the same conclusions about love, that until we conquer our family’s little dysfunctionalities and how they’ve shaped us, love is going to be quite the pickle.

    thank you again!

  3. This question hit home, and I wondered what you would say (as I respect your views), but I can’t understand why I seem to be attracted to guys who very quickly decide they don’t want to commit to me – when I come from a perfectly ‘normal’ family, with parents who didn’t abandon or reject me, who didn’t divorce and with whom I have a healthy relationship. From your list, I seem to be the anxious-insecure type (although I’m not like that at all with my friends) and attract avoidant men. One of my friends (a psychotherapist) thinks I am avoidant and a commitment-phobe, but I can’t understand that as I do genuinely just want a relationship with someone I love and who loves me. But it never happens that way! The parenting theory doesn’t seem to apply here… is there something else I should be considering? Or am I just unlucky?!

  4. I believe you.

  5. When I met my now husband and his family, I thought I’d hit the jackpot and managed to break the cycle my family repeats every generation. Turns out his family is as messed up as mine, if not more. They just put more effort into hiding it with a good dose of passive-aggressive behavior thrown in to keep it hush hushed and topped with a GOOD helping of self-induced denial of anything that’s not rosy.

    Frankly, I prefer my family’s direct approach to throw the shit on the table, have it out, then clean it up. There will always be more crap but at least we get that pile of bullshit out of the way. I can be damn scary to my in-laws because I play by my rules and don’t conform to the see no conflict, hear no conflict, speak no conflict attitude. I can’t pretend nothing’s wrong and swallow my needs for the sake of appearances.

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