It was childhood folklore for me: how my mother dropped her first love for the dark and brooding man who became my father. “He was just so exciting and so different from the other men in my life,” she’d tell me.My mother was 19 when my father proposed in the autumn of 1958. She accepted and said they should wed in June, but my father, then 21, didn’t want to wait that long – he preferred January. When my mom started to argue, he smashed his fist down on his car, denting the dashboard, and snarled, “You’ll marry me in January or you won’t marry me at all!” You’d think that would have set off some alarm bells, but my mother found it romantic.Others were less impressed. Even on her wedding day, as my mother was preparing to leave for the church, my grandfather took her aside and said, “It’s not too late. I can tell them all to go home.” But she went through with it.
As my parents’ marriage went from good to bad to awful, I often wondered why she had married him. Yes, he was good-looking and came from a wealthy family, but by all accounts, he was also a bit odd – a kind of social misfit. And underneath his eccentricities, there was a simmering, unpredictable rage. This, I suppose, is what made him so exciting to my young mother. Like so many of us, she was hopelessly drawn to a bad boy.
Why do so many women fall for men who are no good for them? According to Hara Estroff Marano, editor-at-large of Psychology Today magazine, there may be an evolutionary rationale: good women fall for bad boys because they seem to embody certain qualities, such as brute strength, that were valuable in our prehistoric past.
But Tara O’Connell, Chatelaine’s Ask an Expert psychotherapist, says the reason womanizers, party animals and social rebels attract certain women has less to do with their irresistibility and more to do with the women themselves. “Adult women who always fall for this kind of man can be facing any one or a combination of issues,” says O’Connell. Three of the most common are a poor self-image, a need to nurture, or the recklessness of youth (see Does this sound like you?).
The last one fits my mother to a T. The third of five children, she was raised in a strict Irish Catholic household where the weeks were punctuated by gathering to pray the rosary together. Her father was a dependable, hard-working man, devoted to his family, but awkwardly short on conversation. My father couldn’t have been more different. The second son of Hungarian immigrants, he was a six-foot, dark-haired Protestant boy who’d roar up to my mother’s north Toronto home (late, usually) in his pink-and-black Cadillac. And he could talk and talk and talk. My mother was smitten.
But years into their marriage, the very characteristics that made my father seem so devilishly attractive became problematic. The brooding became moodiness, the passion became aggression and the talk incessant.
Pretty typical, says O’Connell. The woman infatuated with a bad boy will automatically put a positive spin on what others would deem a negative characteristic. So what her friends and family see as angry outbursts, the bad boy’s girlfriend sees as passion; what others see as aggression, she sees as “real man” masculinity.
But can a woman who sees a good side to her bad boy help bring out the positive in him and change his ways? Rarely. O’Connell says, “As long as the man’s behaviour keeps getting him what he wants, why would he stop?”
My father didn’t stop. At one point, my mother was working two jobs while he hung around at home, rambling on about his latest get-rich-quick scheme. It was a pattern that was repeated throughout my formative years.
So what did growing up in that kind of household mean for my love life?
Was I doomed to follow, to some extent, my mother’s headlong rush into the arms of a bad boy?
In some ways, I did take after my mother. I was certainly afraid of getting humiliated and hurt, and simply avoided dating entirely through high school. By the time I hit university, I changed tactics: I dated guys, but would be sarcastic and difficult so they’d never ask me out more than a few times. I called it my “three-date maximum.” I also distinctly remember being attracted only to young men who, as I said at the time, didn’t need me.
Then, at my first job out of journalism school, I met this guy. He was often unshaven, and had a ponytail, a couple of earrings and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He also regularly appeared to be hungover. Unlike the other guys I’d dated, I couldn’t intimidate him; instead, he was amused by my sarcasm and penchant for debate and argument. He sailed through the third date. Was he a bad boy? Kind of. He partied too much, watched the skirts a little too closely and didn’t fit the suit-and-tie image my family had always pictured for me. But he was also smart, kind-hearted, well travelled and hard-working. So I proposed to him two years into our relationship. Fifteen years, three kids, two cats and a house in the burbs later, we’re still married, still bantering, still having fun.
Maybe I just lucked out. It’s possible, though, that my bad boy wasn’t really bad – just young and reckless. And as he matured, he shed the party-hardy habits of his youth.
Or perhaps my bad boy really did turn good. Even O’Connell says that under certain circumstances, it can happen. “Until a bad boy comes across a woman he wants but can’t have because she won’t accept his behaviour, he won’t change. He has to feel a need to be worthy of this woman.”
As for my mother, her story also ends on something of a Hollywood note. After more than 40 years of marriage, she left my father and, later, got married again – to that first love she had dumped all those years ago.
How can you tell if you’ve got a man with an edge or one who might push you over the edge? Here are Toronto psychotherapist Tara O’Connell’s takes on both sides of bad.
Charmed He’s popular and charming, the centre of attention.
Dangerous He’s manipulative, telling you what you want to hear to get what he wants.
Charmed He’s spontaneous, unpredictable and impulsive – exciting to be around.
Dangerous He’s unreliable. He doesn’t show up for dates and doesn’t understand why you want an explanation. He’s insensitive and regularly breaks promises.
Charmed He’s sexually attractive – a real woman-magnet.
Dangerous He’s promiscuous and thinks nothing of flirting in your presence. Your physical relationship lacks real intimacy, and he uses you to reinforce his image of himself.
Charmed He’s full of confidence; he has strong opinions.
Dangerous He’s self-absorbed and not interested in learning about you or your dreams.
Charmed He’s exciting; he takes chances and lives in the moment.
Dangerous He doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions; he’s a risk-taker, with no regard for his own – or your – safety.
If your guy seems more dangerous than charmed, your relationship may be turning abusive. The BC HealthGuide advises asking yourself these questions. Does your partner…
If any of these occur regularly – or if your man ever physically harms you – ask for help. Your doctor can refer you to local support networks. You can also look online at: * Public Health Agency of Canada National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, or Shelternet.
Always falling for Mr. Wrong? Before you go looking for love again, take an honest look at yourself and try to see why you might be drawn to dating disasters. Here are three common causes.
Casanova: The adventures of this 18th-century Italian made his name synonymous with womanizing.
Lord Byron: His success as a poet in the early 1800s fuelled his reputation for being dashing and daring, and led to many liaisons with women.
Dylan Thomas: This hard-living, romantic Welsh poet did not go gently into that good night.
Pablo Picasso: The famous painter had a fondness for nudes – and his models.
Errol Flynn: He’s the original Hollywood swashbuckler, for whom the phrase “in like Flynn” was coined.
Clark Gable: The devilish grin on this ’30s movie star made women give a damn.
Frank Sinatra: Old Blue Eyes crooned his way into many hearts – and beds.
Marlon Brando: The first “wild one” made good girls swoon before he sped away on his motorcycle.
John F. Kennedy: Marilyn Monroe was one of his many mistresses – need we say more?
The Rolling Stones: Rock ‘n’ roll’s bad boys still show no signs of reform.
George Clooney: Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor is in no rush to relinquish the title.
Bill Clinton: Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar – ask Monica Lewinsky.
Robert Downey Jr.: How many women wanted to help him through rehab?
Colin Farrell: When is this Irish actor not smoking, drinking and picking up women – often simultaneously?
“It took me a long time to realize what drew me to the bad boys – besides that wicked, sexy smile of theirs, that is. The answer turned out to be quite simple: I think they are the only ones who will truly embrace my wild side without judgment, but with understanding and support.”
“Motorcycles, cars, tattoos, money, sex…bad boys have all of it, and they love it. They have a sense of adventure that matches mine. When a bad boy looks at you, you’re the only girl in the room. And when he decides to change some habits for you, and steps up as a man to be with you, it’s the greatest feeling ever. Bad boys get what they want, so when they want you, they want you for life and will do anything to keep you. Talk about excitement and fulfillment at the same time!”
Cat Young, Calgary