We’ve all done it— dated someone who just doesn’t pull their weight in a relationship. If you’re feeling drained of your energy and patience trying to clean up after a thirty-something-year-old child or tolerating “quirks” that border on classifiable personality disorders, you’re in good company. The “baby bird complex,” or the desire to patch up the wings of every adorable little sparrow that lands on our doorsteps, also applies to relationships. Lots of us can’t resist the mating call of a good-looking single person who just needs a little love to get off the ground. There’s a couple reasons why nursing the emotionally injured (or just plain unavailable) back to Nicholas Sparks-movie levels of datability is so darn appealing:
1. The ego boost of being a savior. So he’s a struggling artist who needs you to pay for his rent, laundry, and frappuccino habit—but are you shelling out the cash daily because you love him, or you love the fantasy of being the wise, faithful patron of America’s next breakthrough macaroni sculptor? If you’re making peace with your relationship frustration by daydreaming of mediocrity suddenly tipping into money-making genius, perhaps you’re sticking it out with future-Andy-Warhol for the wrong reasons—and ignoring his deadbeat ways in the here and now. Someone who doesn’t pull his weight, or make reasonable attempts to balance the scales, isn’t using you as a muse. He’s just using you. Even if you’re not clothing and feeding a ‘starving artist’ type, the same dynamic occurs frequently with people who wear their emotional damage on their sleeve. Although everyone has past hurts and traumas to overcome, people who seem especially needy—interminably heartbroken or incapable of intimacy—can exert a tractor-beam pull on the slightly-more-stable. Saving them is a quest that promises a lifetime of dependency and worship—ahem, security. It’s so normal to feel this attraction that seducers throughout the ages have employed an air of pitiful vulnerability to lure well-meaning victims into their thrall. Of course, in most cases, a man who says “I’ll never feel love again” or “I’m not capable of commitment” really, truly means he’s not available.
2. Unrealistic optimism. So she meets most of your criteria. She’s funny, smart, and attractive, which is pretty good, especially considering that most of your friends are married already and mild anxiety is setting in. So what if she flips out and threatens to call the whole thing off when you don’t drive her to the airport? Things will probably improve as your relationship builds. Except, they usually don’t. The habits we first notice in people are typically quite hard to break, and your love—magnificent as it is—is likely not up to the task of quelling her tantrums. It’s somewhat ingrained in us to be optimistic and expect the best of people, but when it comes to choosing your life partner, what you see is what you get. You’ll never find someone perfect in every way (and think how obnoxious this person would be), but sacrificing your relationship priorities for security and a Facebook album of soft-light wedding photos is a recipe for resentment. Unfortunately, even the best of us can wind up making this bad deal in our times of insecurity.
3. Getting fooled by a first impression or led on. On your first date, you swooned over his eloquence, his exquisitely tailored suit, and his sigh-inducing stories. Just as advertised in his online dating profile, he declared wistfully that he longed to settle down in a wood cabin the Rocky Mountains with a family one day, and you almost fainted into your penne ala vodka with delight. Seven dates later, you’re wondering what happened to the suave charmer from the Italian restaurant. He seems to have been replaced with a non-committal man-child who frequently ignores your texts and then invites you over for what sounds like a booty call at odd hours, possibly while intoxicated. Unfortunately, people make deceptive first impressions all the time, with and without intending to. If the evidence is stacked high that you’ve been duped by a fabulous introduction that doesn’t deliver, cut your losses. If you’re thinking, I’ve already invested so much or It pays to give him a little more time, you’re investing in what economists call a “sunk cost.” As any stock broker will tell you, you’re not getting your time and money back, so quit before you give any more.
4. You’re a sucker for adventure. She’s a full-time street musician who plays—get this—a didgeridoo made of PVC pipe. Or a globe-trotting pediatric neurosurgeon who removed a tumor the size of a tennis ball from the Malaysian ambassador’s daughter. When someone has a life story that makes your heartbeat rise with vicarious excitement, it’s easy to overlook the ways they’re not your ideal partner. Maybe Miss Didgeridoo has you doing her laundry and bills while she jams with the paint-bucket percussionists, or you have a strong and not totally unsubstantiated suspicion that your favorite Doctor to the Stars is seeing other people after surgery wraps up. If you’re a sucker for new experiences and wild stories, you might downplay your own discomfort and unmet needs. But while you might feel like a victim, you’re actually the one using your partner in this case. If the two of you are happy with the arrangement, there’s no reason it has to stop. If you start craving more equality, openness, and intimacy, though, you might be out of luck.
Although there are plenty of reasons to stay in a fixer-upper relationship that isn’t very fulfilling, most of them boil down to a personal choice. Every partnership takes two people, and though you may feel led on or manipulated, carefully reflect on why you’ve chosen to stay as long as you have. There’s probably a reason for it, and once you’ve identified exactly what draws you into a potentially toxic situation, you can find other, more satisfying ways to meet that need.
Do you wonder if your relationship is a dead end? Advisors at KEEN.com can help put your situation in perspective and point you towards fulfillment.