PHILADELPHIA — Why do some women have an unerring instinct for choosing men who are either emotionally or physically abusive? Why do they choose the men they do, and what can they do to break this destructive pattern?
"Generally, we look for people who confirm our own self-image," said Arlene Goldman, an instructor of psychiatry and human behavior at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University.
"If we're not feeling good about ourselves, then the person we're likely to choose will reflect our low self-esteem," she said.
Self-esteem is composed of many factors, but most theorists agree that early upbringing is very important.
"How your mother felt about herself, as well as how she felt about you, will affect the way you perceive yourself," said Goldman, who is also an assistant director of Jefferson Psychiatric Associates, the adult outpatient psychiatric service of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
'Were You Valuable?'
"You should also think back to the early messages you received as a child: Were you valuable? The answers to such questions can help you understand how your self-image developed," she said.
The relationship between father and daughter is also important, according to Goldman. Young girls learn about men through their fathers, and the messages a father imparts to his daughter about her sexuality may create behaviorial patterns that follow her the rest of her life, she said.
"Most girls fantasize about marrying their fathers. If a father deals with his daughter's seductiveness by acting distant, or not being there emotionally, the message the child may receive is that men are not available," she said.
"A woman in this category may consistently be attracted to cold, distant, or unavailable men, thinking that, if she could figure out what she's done wrong, they would love her," she added. "Of course, she's done nothing; she's simply playing out an old conflict."
Another scenario is that of the father who is too closely involved with his daughter. She becomes filled with guilt because she has won the Oedipal battle over her mother so doesn't allow herself to have healthy adult relationships with men, according to Goldman.
Can't Live Up to Father
This type of woman may believe that no one will ever live up to her father and may be emotionally or physically abusive to men as a way of keeping her distance, she said.
Women who are physically abused were probably abused as children and may not realize that there is another way to be treated, she added.
"If the parent was inconsistent, both loving and abusive (as is often the case with alcoholic parents), the child will get the message that love and violence go together.
"While I don't believe that women ask to be abused, some women know which buttons to push to incite familiar reactions. Perhaps the only touching or attention they received as a child was when they were being abused."
Does this mean that women in destructive relationships are forever trapped by their childhoods, doomed to repeat the same unhealthy situations? Not at all, Goldman said.
"If a woman finds herself thinking that all men are lousy," she said, "she should ask herself if she's doing something to select a certain type of man. And while most men who are going to be abusive are not so initially, a woman can train herself to look for behavioral clues.
"For example, observe how he reacts with family and friends; how other people feel about him; and how he gets angry."
Women already in unrewarding relationships should stop trying to change their partners and concentrate on becoming more assertive, she said.
"You can't change other people, but you can change yourself. You will find that your partner will react to you differently; he may leave, or he may change. If he does leave, you will form a better relationship next time," Goldman said.
Sometimes, simply growing older and gaining life experience are enough to enable women to feel better about themselves, she points out. For others, therapy may be the best vehicle for improving self-image, she said.
"It all comes down to liking yourself and allowing yourself to feel good about your accomplishments," Goldman said.