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Loving on the Edge

We may make unusual choices in a mate, but are they necessarily maladaptive?

Imagine being attracted to edgy people—those with a colorful past. They may seem exotic and mysterious or lure you with an irresistible song that resembles the sirens calling to Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey. Surely, an enchanting song, in whatever form, may seem impossible to resist. But should it be avoided?

In the novel A Matter of Death and Life, Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov captures the alluring nature of pursuing a relationship with someone who has a colorful past, writing, “She was Anya, in her final year at the Institute of Arts, of which I had once heard that no-one normal got accepted there. Still, it’s the abnormal who are the more interesting. Dangerous company they may be, but never boring.”

Are people who have a colorful past more interesting, or do they have greater drama and more intriguing tales than the rest of us? Drama can be mistaken for the excitement of love. As humans, we are excited by novelty, and drama is an intensifier that keeps our endorphins firing. Moreover, wearing rose-colored glasses, our brain wants to look past red flags or make them become simply benign red flags.

An attraction to certain people or our infatuations with them are influenced by implicit memory—a memory that occurs without conscious processing or recognition of how past experiences influence present reality (T. L. Lewis et al., 2000). Fundamental to many of our behaviors, emotions, and mental images, implicit memory silently primes us to respond to a present situation on the basis of the accumulation of past implicit memories (Schacter et al., 1993; Siegel, 2010). Thus, our own unconscious memories may determine the object of our passion.

According to some researchers, if we are compelled to master previous trauma or adverse childhood experiences in our own lives, we may have a “faulty compass” when it comes to choosing relationships or engaging in situations (Visser & Arntz, 2023). Infatuation or passion may be so grand that one may participate in a disordered relationship and hold onto it for an extended period of time, imagining that things will change. Even the fantasy of changing someone can be intoxicating. Generally, what motivates someone to rescue a partner may involve an attempt to receive admiration, validation, or love from them. Still, more likely the compulsive rescuer is attempting to repair a negative sense of self that developed in childhood (Lamia & Krieger, 2009).

In any case, a colorful past does not necessarily make someone an undesirable or dangerous partner. The complexity of someone’s history may provide intrinsic value to a relationship rather than be inherently damaging. Challenges or adverse experiences early in life can endow some people with certain gifts—perhaps a unique perspective on life or a depth that others who have been carefully nurtured and loved may lack. How we process a difficult past in the context of a present relationship involves the personal meaning we attribute to past experiences, our ability to work through the ruptures we encounter in a current relationship, and, perhaps above all else, the capacity to learn from what we face.


Kurkov. A. (1996/2005). A matter of death and life. Harvill Secker/Vintage.

Lamia, M. & Krieger, M (2009/2015). The white knight syndrome: Rescue yourself from the need to rescue others. New Harbinger/Echo Point.

Lewis, T. L., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2000). A general theory of love. Random House.

Schacter, D. L., Chiu, C.-Y. P., & Ochsner, K. N. (1993). Implicit memory: A selective review. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 16, 159–182.

Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. Random House.

Visser, R. & Arntz, A. (2023). A faulty compass: Why do some people choose situations that are not good for them? Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 78, 1-7.

doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2022.101793

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