Why Women Stay with Mean Men

Last week we took a look at what attracts women to mean men. In many ways, women fall for these men as romantic partners for the same reasons that everyone falls for them: their charm, charisma, and dynamism. The more compelling question might not be why women get together with mean men, but why do they stay? * When we watch accomplished women like Silda Spitzer (wife of Eliot) and Elizabeth Edwards (wife of John) standing by their men through humiliation, we wonder: What is she thinking?

The truth of these partnerships is much more complex than it may appear from the outside. If a man is on the psychopathy spectrum, his romantic relationships are literal psychodramas. He is not so much partnering with his mate as he is colluding with her.

Collusion in this context is a subconscious, repetitive pattern of interaction between two people, with the woman often looking to ease some deep past wound and the man looking to assuage his own anxiety and insecurity by asserting complete control over his partner.

The psychiatrist Jürg Willi defines the collusion principle as the “unconscious interplay of two partners who are looking for each other in the hope of coming to terms together with those conflicts and frustrations in their lives which they have not yet managed to resolve.” They collude around the unconscious hope that they will find in each other what they need to quiet their respective anxieties.

Relationship collusion can suck up an enormous amount of energy. And though the fault for the abusive behavior certainly lies with the controlling partner, the collusion itself is the fault of neither person—no matter how imbalanced it may look to the outside.

If the woman forming a romantic bond with the mean man is his “complement” for collusion, then a mental gridlock emerges and the two become trapped in a parasitic bond.

In Lisa’s case, her husband, Aaron, knew how to lay on the charm and make her feel special. They met when she was a senior in college with her sights set on graduate school at Columbia. But regardless of her intelligence, engaging personality, and attractiveness, she admitted decades later that when she met first met Aaron her self-esteem was low. After she underwent her postdivorce therapy, she saw how the attraction to Aaron and the subsequent twenty years of marriage was, as she put it, “a marriage of psychological convenience. We both brought our own shitty emotional baggage to the marriage but it wasn’t a loving marriage. We were both in it, as psychological near-opposites, trying to get our needs met through the other.”

Although they may appear to others as polar opposites, deep down these toxic couples share a complementary conflict. The roles may shift: the more passive a position she takes, the more active the mean man becomes. And, the actors will intermittently reverse their roles to maintain equilibrium, with the psychopathic husband making the occasional artificial show of loosening his hold on his partner.

Often one partner pawns off on their mate whatever traits he or she can’t quite admit to—anger, depression, neediness, or inadequacy. Think of the paranoid, unfaithful husband who accuses his wife of cheating. In these projections, a couple splits up emotions like household chores. One partner will always be weak, the other always strong.

In Lisa’s case, the one constant in the marriage was her passivity. As she started to clinically deconstruct this drama, she began to understand that she was trying to get from her partner what she lacked at an earlier, critical point in her emotional development.

Like many women married to mean men, Lisa only developed this insight once she’d fully extricated herself from the relationship and devoted her energy to unpacking these issues in psychotherapy. With help, she developed a fuller understanding of her self-defeating proclivities that existed at a subconscious level.

“Willing” victims of psychopathic men are not necessarily suffering from low self-esteem in a conventional sense of the term, however. In fact, they may have a very high opinion of themselves in general, but their self-worth is utterly contingent on having someone to validate them and make them feel special: enter the mean man. Women with a weakness for mean men are often the most loyal of romantic partners, standing by a man no matter what he does wrong. At the extreme, their devotion becomes cultlike.

If a woman is highly susceptible, she may stay with a manipulative man even when he stops validating her on a regular basis and only offers occasional tokens of praise or respect. By that time she may be in too deep to see a way out.

At some point the dysfunctional features of the relationship become painfully obvious. The couple may become too involved in their energy-draining fighting rituals to keep up the pretense of a normal relationship.

When these couples finally do split up, it often gets extremely ugly. The divorce between Vegas impresario Steve Wynn and his wife, Elaine, is grabbing headlines right now as she fights to maintain her seat on the board of a company she was instrumental in building.

It turns out better for some, however. It might have been baffling to watch Silda stand by her husband’s side back in 2008, but this past April when news of her lucrative divorce settlement broke, it appeared she might be getting the last laugh.

*For the purposes of this post I’ve used male and female pronouns to reflect my personal research; however, it is important to note that this toxic relationship dynamic can also exist in gay couples.