Man trouble

Man Trouble. Is your best friend dating a dud? Is your own rap sheet full of bad boys? Liza Finlay finds out why.

Man Trouble
Is your best friend dating a dud? Is your own rap sheet full of bad boys? Liza Finlay finds out why.

Fed-er-lined (verb)
To conspicuously fall from grace while under the influence of a troublemaking male companion. (Eg. She was Federlined.)

What happened? It seems like only yesterday we watched a bubbly Britney Spears—one of the world’s most famous Disney graduates—bounce around the stage in schoolgirl pleats and ponytails. She topped the charts, she launched her Fantasy Britney Spears (fragrance)—then she fell. Mickey Mouse ears were traded for muscle tees and a meathead male. It seemed clear to everyone but Brit that Kevin Federline was only in it for the ride.

And what a ride—straight to tabloid hell. Earning consecutive spots on Mr. Blackwell’s Worst-Dressed List is the least of it. His drinking binges and her disorderly conduct made it plain that she’s addicted to him, but she knows that he’s toxic.

In short, Britney was Federlined. And she’s not alone. For every woman who has put up with a buffoon or a bum, there is a legion of mystified girlfriends shaking their heads in confusion and concern. Everyone knows someone beautiful and accomplished who constantly couples with, well, losers. It’s the kind of partnership pandemic that puts Dr. Phil in prime time, going head-to-head with unfaithful gigolos and counseling the lovelorn Paula Abdul as she struggles against the low self-esteem that keeps her from finding a “good” man.

Of course, there are inner demons at work—we all have enough training as armchair psychologists to admit that. But what demons? And why doesn’t she just dump the dud?

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Before we can even begin to understand what drives good women to make such bad choices, we must first confront the very definitions of “good” and “bad” embedded in our culture, says Richmond Hill, Ont., psychotherapist Gail Winemaker.

“Girls learn from a very young age that to be a so-called good woman is to be accommodating,” says Winemaker. “We are taught to put others before ourselves. We start to silence our own longings and preferences. Boys learn that being a man means being tough, strong and in control of emotions. So, by age 10, women lose their voices and men lose their hearts.”

After years in a relationship with a man who was repeatedly unfaithful, Annabelle*, a Toronto jewelry designer, lost her heart, too.

“I was constantly allowing my boundaries to be pushed because I didn’t want to offend,” she says. “Little by little, I found myself getting further and further away from what I once held true. Eventually, you wake up and realize you are so far away from your own personal limits that you don’t even know who you are anymore.”

Annabelle ditched her dud, but only after five long years of listening to his teary confessions of cheating and broken promises of fidelity.

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Stories of lying, cheating and stealing have the sorrowful twang of a sad country song, but many seemingly invulnerable women put up with worse. Infidelity wasn’t the issue when Chicago-based author Julie Bell found the courage to show her husband the door.

“But I didn’t kick my hubby out over housework and leaving the dishes on top of the dishwasher, either,” she explains. “The problems were bigger. It was about not being involved as a father, not being an involved friend to me. I needed to identify what I needed, really needed, in the relationship and that helped me realize that I needed to step away.”

Ultimately, Bell and her partner patched things up and reunited, but only after he agreed to—wait for it—change. Pause, rewind, play again. Change a man? That’s a sacrilege notion in a culture steeped in pop psychology that tells us that expecting someone to change is disrespectful, at worst; pointless, at best.

Bell, co-author with Donna Brown of The Scorecard: How to Fix Your Man in One Year or Less, disagrees. Sure, she says, some men aren’t capable of change and, more importantly, some behaviours (infidelity, thievery) are too serious to even attempt fixing. But a little male remodeling is in order, they say, when men are open, honest and committed to making the relationship work.

Where the concept of the redesigned male collides head-on with “men can’t change” psychobabble is at the intersection of negligence and disrespect. “Partners who are apathetic about the process or who are completely unable to compromise have bigger issues than any woman can or should bite off,” says Bell.

But before you can even begin to determine if your guy is renovation material, you need to clean the skeletons out of your own closet. “Step 1 for any woman in an unequal relationship is to define what’s important to her, what she needs,” says Bell. “That goes much deeper than drawing up a list of your boyfriend’s faults. The conversation she needs to have with herself is, ‘Where’s the line? Has he crossed it?’ That’s not an easy exercise. There’s no Cosmo quiz to help you figure out boundaries.”

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“It’s easier said than done, of course,” adds Brown. “Establishing what you need to make you happy has no one-size-fits-all answer. But respect is a bare minimum—that’s a pass or fail thing. If you’re not getting that, you better redraw your line quickly.”

Of course, demanding respect from others requires that you have respect for yourself, and many women don’t, says Toronto couples counsellor Diana Donald. Strip away the glossy exterior and, at her core, a woman in an inequitable relationship carries with her ugly self-doubt.

The wounded inner child has become fodder for many late-night comedic digs, but innate feelings of inadequacy go a long way toward explaining why a woman like Britney Spears—who has good looks and gads of money—marries (and procreates) with a good-for-nothing party brat, while, on the other hand, the similarly endowed Angelina Jolie dumps her reportedly unfaithful ex (Billy Bob Thornton) faster than you can spell d-i-v-o-r-c-e.

“Every one of my female patients reveals this ‘secret’ sin, and that is a deep-seated belief that she’s not good enough. She looks around at all the other women carrying on loving relationships, but she doesn’t see herself as one of them,” says Donald. “The friend we look at so admiringly sees herself as flawed, and an equally flawed relationship is what she’s most at home with.”

Annabelle realizes now that wounds she carried with her from childhood made her vulnerable to abuse. “At first, I was so charmed because Marco* was so unlike my father,” she says. “He was enterprising, where my dad wasn’t. I was naive. It took me awhile to see beyond that charming exterior. When I did, I lacked the self-respect to say goodbye and we were entangled in a business together. He would turn things around to make issues my fault, and I believed him.”

Believing the worst of themselves and the best of their loser boyfriends is a common theme among the Federlined, says Donald. “Before any woman can free herself from a destructive relationship, she must first truly understand what it is that compels her to stay. And that means she must understand what it is that makes her feel unworthy of anything better.”

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Unraveling a lifetime of cumulative inner inadequacy isn’t easily remedied by a pint of Rocky Road and a glossy self-help book, though. For Annabelle, salvation came only after years of therapy.

“I think women want to wave a wand, sleep on it and wake up feeling better,” says Donald. “They think if they say a few magic words, they’ll tackle their inner demons. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long road that requires retracing your steps way back to when you were a child and first decided that belonging and being OK means being perfect.”

But perfection is different for everyone, points out Donald, and embracing that fundamental truth is the key that liberates us from self-imposed prisons. “When you accept yourself for who you truly are—warts and all—all those things that made you feel imperfect [your aversion to housework, your tendency to fly off the handle] become unimportant. They are simply some of the many threads that make up your unique tapestry. Then, the conversation becomes less ‘Who else would want me?’ and more ‘Who would make a better fit?’”

Britney, are you listening? Perhaps it’s time to create a new pop-culture colloquialism. To be given a well-shod, well-deserved boot for poor performance as a partner. (Eg. He was Britinized.)

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