Your Brain on Bad Boys
My dating days are far behind me (I’ve been with my man for a hundred years), but like a lot of soul-searching types, I tend to revisit past relationships in my mind. I think about how grateful I am that things didn’t actually work out the way I wanted them to at the time and about how the timing was just perfect for me to meet my husband when I did. I was emotionally ready for a healthy, no-games relationship.
Give Me All the Drama
Dating in my 20s was all about drama—often created by me in my mind. Whatever guy was preoccupying my (obsessively, over-analyzing) mind, most of what actually happened was me wondering “what is he thinking?” Girlfriends would get daily updates on something he said in a 10-second conversation that we’d break down over hours on the phone or bottles of wine.
Me: …and then he said “hey, she and I aren’t that serious.”
Friend: He’s totally leaving the door open for you!
Me: But then I heard him on the phone with her making plans, but quietly, like he didn’t want me to hear.
Friend: That’s because he’s probably going to end it with her.
I was addicted to the ups, downs, highs, lows, push, pulls, fantasies and vague realities with men who weren’t actually available. My friends were patient, doing what best friends do best: validating me.
The drama to end all drama came in the form of another guy I thought I was in love with. Vinny and I had a real connection. Inside jokes for days, a comfortable compatibility and—unlike a lot of other guys before him—he was actually single. I became engrossed in an intense “something more than friendship but I’m not sure what” with him that made me feel like a crazy person until I had an Oprah-esque “Aha!” moment that helped me realize that this person was treating me the way I was allowing him to treat me, and that I had the power all along to move on—I just lacked the self-esteem to do it. My problem was one of confidence. And this possibly sociopathic manipulator could smell it a mile away and took advantage for as long as I let him.
Then on a recent podcast, Emily talked about an article that explains the biochemistry of the brain and the “Bad Boy” effect. It turns out, while I may well have suffered from low self-esteem, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was my brain.
Mind Games and Misery
Vinny and I would walk the length of Manhattan just talking. I was his guest of honor at all his jazz-band gigs, sitting on a throne made for ladies-in-waiting. He wrote a song for me. He took me home to meet his family.
When other guys talked to me, he’d say, “are you moving in on my woman?” When we weren’t together, we’d talk on the phone for hours. All his friends knew me, and when I was introduced to his best friend, he said, “finally I’m meeting this amazing girl I’ve heard so much about!” We had something really, really special.
But what we didn’t have was sex. He always looked at other women when we were together, commenting on what he thought was hot or not. He would say “I’m celibate for a year” or “I’m still in love with my ex,” or “you know we can’t be more than friends, right?”
I was a Good Time Gal who wasn’t getting any. So, I would use the times when he was being cold to explore my options with other guys. One time I was chatting with a (much, much hotter) musician at a party, and Vinny sidled up, put his arm around me and said, “you know my mom wants me to marry you, right?” Another time I went on a date with a guy, and I found out later that Vinny followed me, taking two trains from Washington Heights to Hell’s Kitchen, then watching me in the restaurant.
But I played along. I said “oh, totally, I know we can’t ever actually date!” It never occurred to me to ask “why?” or “so what is it that we are doing?” I played the role of platonic girlfriend perfectly. I went to all of his gigs. I paid for meals because he was broke. Then I moved in with him.
Here’s how it ended with Vinny: He was throwing a party in the apartment (where I was paying rent, he was not) and I was not invited to the party, because he had invited another girl who he was actually dating.
In those days, I rarely talked with my friends anymore. I was isolating, and didn’t want to hear their opinions because they “didn’t understand us.” But one of my (most loyal and badass) friends agreed instantly to come to this party with me, probably to investigate the situation but also to eat the pot brownies that were promised.
I ate a pot brownie, and in a series of epiphanies, my brain re-wired itself. I turned to my friend and said, “let’s go.”
Me: I just realized something. Vinny is a huge asshole.
Friend: You’re just now realizing that?
She shoved the platter of brownies in her purse, I packed a bag and only returned once for the rest of my things a few days later. I never explained anything to him, because I had already wasted too much everything on this guy.
Promises and Pain
In hind-sight, I have always considered my epiphany about Vinny as a sort of drug-induced-divine-intervention on a low self-esteem girl. But I’m now beginning to understand that it was the wiring in my brain to blame, not my lack of confidence.
Vinny, like any master manipulator or grade-A Narcissist, had an intoxicating effect on my biochemistry. His pushing and pulling was triggering surges of chemicals—highs and lows a lot like cocaine does for an addict. I was addicted to his cruelty and his cold-shoulder, then healed by his affection. The surges of serotonin and dopamine followed by a complete withdrawal of attention were a carnival ride that had become my normal. It was the actual irregular dosing of attention followed by being ignored that made me want it more. Previous dramas with unavailable guys withered in comparison to the euphoria I experienced with my erratic fixes of Vinny’s sweet elixir of promises then pain.
This is also an answer to the bigger question, “why do women return to their abusers?” Women end up hospitalized or dead because their brains have confused this kind of treatment with love. Only he can make me feel better after he has made me feel so bad. Our attachment to toxic partners becomes stronger every time they mistreat us.
No Shame in the Drama Game
Looking back on Vinny, I always felt sad for that girl who threw her pearls before swine and just couldn’t see her worth. Understanding that the neurons and neuro-receptors in my brain were responsible for my poor choices has helped to relieve any residual guilt or shame I’ve been carrying since this phase in my life.
The irony is not lost on me that in order to recover from the addiction to this kind of treatment it required a mind-altering actual drug-related experience. I don’t advocate taking one kind of drug to replace an addiction to another, but pot was never my problem, assholes were.
The good news is that there are ways to reprogram your brain. Experts suggest cultivating new activities and hobbies that help regulate your brain’s release of the pleasure chemicals. This will make it easier for your brain to adjust to the nice guy just around the corner: the one who gives us the good stuff on the regular, without that roller-coaster ride of depravity and what we are misinterpreting as love.