My first boyfriend, Zach, was a product of bad relationships dating all the way back to his high school years. He told me how he had barely survived two failed engagements and a “serious” long-distance romance with a woman one and a half times his age when we met that brisk September day in the middle of the city square. My immediate impression of him was that he had a kind face but his eyes were pained and brimming with a distant sadness. Over the course of the next several months that we saw each other, I realized just how hurt and damaged he was. Apparently, all three of the women he had once loved had cheated on him, they attempted to control who he spoke to or who he hung around, and all of them were very psychologically disturbed. This left Zach with major trust issues, but more than that, he developed a thick skin of cynicism toward love and romance in general. He was still a pretty good guy; decent, likable, and easy company. Nevertheless, his bitterness couldn’t help but seep into every aspect of his personality.
He often thought the worst of women and he was quick to take offense to the littlest things, no matter how many times I tried to assure him that I meant him no harm. I inherited a man who had built up a giant wall of callus around his heart and it was all because of the broken, unfaithful women who had come before me. Everywhere I look I see an extraordinarily unnerving trend of this. Decent, loving, and good men are being extended to their limits by women too selfish, too disloyal, or too saddled with emotional baggage to appreciate who’s standing in their corner. What’s incredible is that these men will fervently stick by these women with their whole heart, truly believing that they will suddenly get better or grow out of it. As though broken women simply wake up one day and decide to be cured of their brokenness. They will date them, marry them, and even have kids with them; meanwhile, we good women are sitting back watching what could have been (and who should have been with us) go down the drain.
What does a broken woman look like, you may ask? They are badly scarred by events or individuals in their own past. They can be victims of childhood bullying, parental neglect, and physical or emotional abuse. They may have grown up in dysfunctional or fractured homes where they watched their parents resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms, i.e. alcohol, gambling, hoarding. Or they might have lived with a guardian who constantly belittled them and made them feel worthless. They may be mentally ill or have behaviors that indicate borderline personality disorder, anxiety, or clinical depression. They can be individuals traumatized by a history of toxic relationships, breakups, and betrayals, and still plagued by unresolved trust issues. They can be severely temperamental or they might be frequently described as being angry more often than not. They may have a history of self-harm that exhibits itself as a dangerous cycle of cutting, hair-pulling, reckless sexual activity, drug abuse, or many other types of self-injury.
Hurt people will hurt the people closest to them. Unfortunately, sometimes the object of their abuse is the person they need and rely on the most. I have a co-worker who shares a 14-year-old daughter with his ex-wife. When he met her she was a confused, promiscuous, and depressed young adult with “daddy issues.” He thought that she was just difficult, but in reality, he was all aboard the “crazy girlfriend train.” She was psycho and manic. When she wasn’t screwing everything and anything that walked with something between its legs, she was accusing him of cheating on her. He married her, believing that he could change her, as though his love would be enough to tame her ways. They eventually had their daughter and while he worked to hold their lives together as best as he could manage, she continued to live like the sexually liberated bachelorette she was when they met. Ultimately, she tired of domestic life and requested a divorce from him.
Flash forward now a decade, and this same co-worker is preparing to marry his second wife. And while she isn’t as careless as his ex, she too has her share of emotional problems. She craves constant attention, struggles with anxiety, and has lingering trust issues after a long string of failed relationships. She also has anger issues. So 10 years between his two most serious relationships, what are the odds that both women would be unstable? The answer to the mystery of why men stay in these terrible relationships with terrible women is that codependency in men often manifests in the form of them being consistently attracted to women who need a “savior.” Codependency is an addiction. Codependent men will pass by the most stable, independent, and mentally sound women to intentionally seek out romantic partners who need to be rescued. They will make costly, unhealthy sacrifices at the expense of their jobs, family, and their own emotional stability, just to be that woman’s all in all.
Making sacrifices or concessions for the ones you love is not a bad thing, but if it comes with compromising your morals, your values, or what is important to you, then you are for sure with the wrong person. Codependent men indulge in taking care of the emotionally wrecked women in their lives and will hold themselves personally responsible for their shortcomings. They are drawn to women who are demanding, jealous for attention, needy, and abusive. They may be unfulfilled or feel trapped by their significant other’s manipulation, but they will refuse to exit the relationship because their lives now revolve around this toxic dynamic. They fear abandonment and loneliness far more than they fear being stuck in an unfruitful, emotionally starved relationship. Codependent habits are reinforced by people-pleasing behaviors, which are perpetuated by one’s inability to cut ties or cope with losing control of something or someone, even if it is detrimental to their wellbeing.
It is easy to forget that codependency is entirely gender-neutral, although we recognize the signs of it all the time in women in physically or emotionally imbalanced relationships. From women in our family, to our best friends, to the woman next door, to the starring character in a Lifetime original TV movie, we all know of women who suppress their feelings and sacrifice their personal needs in order to enable immature, irresponsible, mentally ill, or under-achieving male partners. We easily see it in the woman who constantly gravitates to “bad boys,” problematic men, and otherwise societal failures whom everyone else has reasonably given up on. But this concept of trying to repair broken things that may or may not want to be fixed is certainly not foreign to many men either. Broken women thrive on men with weak boundaries and fragile confidence. Codependent men, consequently, thrive on clingy, needy, and insecure women because it’s their fundamentally broken worldview that validates their masculinity. They need to be needed. In their mind, having this woman who desperately and irrationally has a need for them translates to them being wanted.
My ex, Zach, was addicted to women he thought he could save; women who needed every minute of his time and drained from him far more than they were capable of reciprocating. As much as their verbal and emotional abuse scarred him, and as much as he resented their jealousy, he remained in these hurtful relationships for too long. Then when he meets me: a young woman with a stable career, peace of mind, and a strong, supportive network of family and friends, he chooses to resist the fact that I am happily independent. He resorts to questioning my faithfulness because I didn’t need to fill every waking minute of my existence with him. He is skeptical about my closeness to my mother and my loyalty to my family because he’s accustomed to women with no healthy family dynamic. He doesn’t appreciate my strong will and innate ability to make my own decisions apart from him, because the women he’s known have always leaned on him for motivation. Zach and I didn’t last. And not surprisingly, after we ended it, he soon found himself in another doomed relationship with a disturbed and volatile young woman who used him for shelter and financial security mostly. It was exactly what he wanted all along.