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I’ve met a good man so why am I drawn back to one who treats me terribly?

Ask Roe: Will I ever be able to have a healthy relationship after all I’ve been through?

Why would I sabotage the lovely relationship I have with my boyfriend, or even just my peace of mind, for this guy who has so little to offer? Photograph: Getty

Dear Roe,
I escaped an abusive marriage a few years ago. The marriage was awful – physical and emotional abuse, coercive control, financial abuse. I was already co-dependent, having grown up with an alcoholic parent, so it was normal and natural for me to put all my efforts into
"fixing" myself to meet his increasingly unreasonable demands rather than question the situation and see the abuse as it really was.

Eventually I found the strength to finish the marriage, even though several years of turmoil ensued as my ex tried to keep control over me. I was delighted to finally get legally divorced. It was a shock to be single when I ended my marriage. I soon found myself in an on and off "friends with benefits" situation. He was very charming and charismatic and I was madly attracted to him but I could see that it was unhealthy. He was fickle and would alternate between "love bombing" and keeping his distance. I knew I deserved better so, after a while, I made a strong resolve to put it behind me.

I met a great guy about a year ago. He’s warm, sexy, affectionate and funny and we have a wonderful time together. He gets on well with my children, family and friends. He makes a real effort in our relationship. He’s secure and successful and wants to share his life with me. I have huge trust issues but I feel a lovely sense of peace and contentment when I’m with him. I can really see us having a future together.

And yet, the "friend with benefits" started messaging me again recently – after a very long gap, of course. I haven't seen him because of the pandemic but I find myself drawn to him, against my better judgment. It's like an addiction that way. So far I've kept him at arm's length but I don't entirely trust myself here.

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It’s crazy, why would I sabotage the lovely relationship I have with my boyfriend, or even just my peace of mind, for this guy who has so little to offer? Will I ever be able to achieve a healthy relationship after all I’ve been through?

Your original letter was longer than I could fit into the column, but in it you mention that you have a good therapist, and it’s vital that you bring up this issue with them – your general contentment with your new partner, but your pull back to this unhealthy, unrewarding dynamic with your friend with benefits.

What is so clear is that you have benefitted from therapy and that, intellectually, you have put a lot of important pieces together to understand why these awful, abusive, undeserving men have such a hold over you.

You grew up in an unstable household where your needs and sense of safety and stability were never prioritised. You grew accustomed both to living in a chaotic environment and completely abandoning your own needs to try to please someone else. You then also detail the terrifying, destabilising and utter chaos of having an abusive partner, and then this unhealthy, one-sided dynamic with your “friend with benefits” (completely the wrong term by the way, he’s not a friend) where he engages in “love bombing” or extravagant, even overwhelming promises and gestures of love and romance and attention – before disappearing.

Lovebombing and disappearing is a classic technique of narcissists and emotional abusers, and it’s so important that you refer to your attraction to this man as an “addiction” – because that’s what it is.

Trauma bonding

Trauma bonding occurs when you form an emotional bond with someone, where the bond arises from a recurring, cyclical pattern of abuse or neglect that is punctuated by brief incidents of affection or validation. The result is deeply confusing on an emotional level, leaving you certain that the moments of validation mean this person must really love you, and if you just work harder or be better, they’ll stop lashing out.

This thought process keeps you stuck in a loop of trying to fix yourself in order to fix the relationship – even though it can’t be fixed, because it’s working precisely as it is designed to: to keep you attached. But trauma bonding also has physiological effects, as the cycle of abuse or neglect followed by validation makes the brain release stress hormones like cortisol, followed by bonding hormones like oxytocin and dopamine when you get even a crumb of kindness – a vicious cycle that keeps you craving those moments of relief. It is physiologically like an addiction, as you crave that high – enduring even the lowest lows to get it.

Trauma bonding is like many forms of trauma in our lives: we unconsciously repeat the same action and dynamic over and over, hoping to write a new ending – here, you’re hoping that these people will finally treat you how you deserve to be treated. You’re hoping that if you keep trying, you’ll solve the puzzle and find the answer.

So let’s cheat a little. There’s a reason I’m an advice columnist, not a therapist; I like skipping to the answer. So here it is: These men are not the answer. These men don’t have the answer. These men can’t give you the answer.

Because you are the answer.

Chaos and instability

You are worthy and valid and lovable as you are, and your only problem is that you haven’t learned to sit with that yet. Intellectually you know you deserve more than these unhealthy cycles and these terrible destructive men, but part of you still physically and emotionally craves that chaos and instability.

You haven’t learned on an embodied level how to sit in the safety of love because it is unfamiliar and part of your brain thinks this house full of love and security and a future is boring because I don’t have to do anything and can’t prove my worth; but that burning wreck across the street with the crumbling beams and the fire in the basement needs me. But the burning wreck doesn’t need you; it doesn’t even want you. All it wants to do is burn, and when you come along with a saucepan of water, it’s happy to let you think for a moment that you can control it – so that it can consume you and use you as fuel.

You need to learn to sit in the safe house. You need to learn to feel your body when it’s not being burned. You need to learn that you don’t need to throw yourself into a fire to prove your worth, because you are already worthy. You always have been.

Talk to your therapist about these feelings, ask about embodied therapies, talk about learning to sit with love. There’s a fire in the safe house, too, you know. Instead of raging, it glows in a fireplace, keeping you warm, and nourishing you. Learn to bask in the warmth of this fire, to feel it, to appreciate it. Learn to notice the sensations of love and safety and comfort, not just scalding heat. Notice too when you start to feel the truth of your body, as well as your mind, telling you: You are the answer.