Why do we fall for people who are bad for us?

Written by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

It's the questions about relationships that break my heart.

A lot of sex questions can be resolved simply by giving an answer: no, you can't get addicted to your vibrator; no, there are no ill health consequences related to masturbation, only ill health consequences related to shame about masturbation; yes, if you're on hormonal birth control it's safe (like 95% safe) for your partner to ejaculate inside you, but if you'd like to back up with a condom, that's cool too; yes, Saran wrap is actually effective as a dam during cunnilingus (but only the regular kind, not the microwavable kind); yes, children, even infants, experience arousal and orgasm.

Answers like that are factual and easy to give, and they tend to land inside people like brandy, spreading unpredictable warmth and ease. I love giving those answers.

There's some sex stuff that's harder to answer: never had an orgasm? Practice systematic desensitization plus self-reflection (it's easier to describe than to do). Sex addiction? No you can't be "addicted" to sex but it's a handy shortcut term for people who don't understand compulsive behavior as a strategy for managing negative affect. No desire? Yeah, it happens to most people at some point in their lives and here's a list of things that may be causing it and another list of things you can do about it (again, it's easier to describe than to do).

Answers like that are like handing someone a toolbox and saying, "Good luck." I don't feel great about it, but it's SOMETHING, and hell an educator can't fix all the problems in the world.

But the relationship stuff...

Someone asked, Why do we always fall for people who are bad for us?

Answer: we don't, not all of us, not always, and those of us who do can learn to fall for people who are good for us.

Early in our relationship lives, we fall for people who replicate our family of origin.1 (I said that in class and there was a widespread groan of horror.) We fall for folks who obey the rules of attachment we learned before we were, say, four years old.

For some people, that's okay. But if you had a fucked up family of origin, you're going to recapitulate that fucked up dynamic until... until you change. Sometimes change happens spontaneously, but mostly it's deliberate and it's EFFORTFUL.

And by effortful, I mean you have dig through layers of hardened earth, uproot your own psychology, and replant it somewhere less toxic.

I tell folks to read David Richo's How to Be an Adult. Does the title feel patronizing to you? Some people have said that to me, but to me it's just like, "Yep. That's what we need. An instruction manual." And that's what it is: a how-to guide for putting down the grief and the trauma and creating space for love.

It isn't easy, but it is simple: grief with blame turned inward is depression; grief with blame turned outward is rage; grief without blame is how you heal.

So we don't always fall for people who are bad for us. We fall for people who meet our expectations of what partnerships are made of. Our expectations were shaped, when we were young, by our families. Once we're adults, we have the opportunity to change those expectations. Deep change requires time and suffering, suffering like the ache you experience when you come in out of the cold.

  1. Knapp, D. J., Norton, A. M., & Sandberg, J. G. (2015). Family-of-origin, relationship self-regulation, and attachment in marital relationships. Contemporary Family Therapy, 37(2), 130-141.

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