Q: My close friend Mark (that’s not his real name) – fell in love with someone nine years ago – I’ll call him Sam. Sam has done nothing but harm to him. He can’t hold down a job, even though Mark spent a lot of money he doesn’t have for schools and training programs for him. He got addicted to drugs, and Mark spent more money on treatment programs. Now he’s in and out of sobriety. He cheated on Mark, and Mark found out. He promised he wouldn’t do it again, but everyone knows that he kept doing it. On top of that, he’s bullying and insulting to Mark in front of his friends. Recently he told Mark that he doesn’t love him and never did, and he moved out. I was relieved that it was finally over, but now Mark is begging and pleading and doing everything he can to get him back – and he’ll probably succeed! I can’t believe it. I went off on him. I told him he was acting crazy and that he should stop holding on to this toxic loser. He said that I just didn’t understand love and loyalty and basically implied we couldn’t be friends anymore if I continued to say what I was saying. What can I do?
A: If I were in your situation I’d probably be as exasperated as you are. But as hard as it may be, I think it’s a good idea to have a personal policy not to give advice to people who don’t ask for it or don’t want to hear it. That doesn’t mean that you have to hide how you really feel, and you may have to keep some distance from Mark for a while to protect yourself from the pain you feel when you see him doing this to himself.
It’s natural to expect that, when people find themselves in an abusive relationship, they’ll act in their own best interests and get out of it, but every therapist encounters people who do exactly the opposite. When repeatedly badly treated, they not only don’t walk away, they hold on even more tightly; they make excuses for the abuser; and they redouble their efforts to convince the person they love to love them back. Why do people behave like this?
Here’s one scenario that describes how some people get there: Imagine a young boy whose parents are basically, because of their own problems, unable to be competent parents. Maybe they’re chronically unemployed, or addicts, or maybe they’re incapacitated by depression or some other emotional illness. The boy lives in chronic terror because he’s not being taken care of. He grows up faster than he should, and he becomes parentified – he learns to parent his parents – to get them off drugs, if that’s the problem, or help them feel better if they’re depressed, and so on. Unconsciously, he develops what psychologists call a “reparative fantasy” – the sad belief that if he fixes his parents then they will turn around and finally love and care for him in the way that he needs.
When this hypothetical boy grows up, he continues to live out the same reparative fantasy. He deliberately, if unconsciously, seeks out people who can’t take care of themselves, much less love him in the way he needs, and instead of walking away when he discovers this, he goes on a campaign to repair his partner so that the partner will grow up and finally love him. It’s almost always a hopeless quest, but as long as he remains unconscious of what’s driving him, he can’t see that. I’ve worked with patients in therapy who have found their way out of this self-defeating pattern, but it’s usually a long and difficult road.
I’m not saying that this is what your friend Mark is doing. Obviously I don’t know him, and what I’ve described is only one way people get into the kind of trap he’s in. I describe it mainly to show how deep this kind of self-destructiveness can run. Seeing how complex, tangled and long-standing these issues can be won’t make your situation any less difficult, but maybe it will help you remember to feel compassion for the depth of his suffering and confusion next time you’re overcome with anger and exasperation toward him.