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Why Do Women Fall for Cruel Men?

Was Sylvia Plath right—does every woman adore a fascist?

For many women—even smart women, women who should know better—a "strong man" is synonymous with one who treats her badly. If the man doesn't treat her badly, she'll mortify herself, often by becoming voracious in her needs. She'll hate herself and then wonder why she's unloved.

Dr. Alexandra Symonds records the case of a woman who "lived alone, worked hard, traveled, and had many friends" and yet "was always very cautious about becoming involved (romantically) because she knew that 'only a strong man could take me.'" Symonds found that as soon as this woman met a man who was compatible, she seemed to change from being independent to being extremely needy.

"She had no interest in going out or entertaining friends. She was interested only in her boyfriend, had tremendous sexual desires, and looked forward to getting married, cutting down on her work or giving it up completely. She clung to her boyfriend physically and emotionally, looked up to him in a little-girl manner and conducted herself in a submissive sycophantic way in his presence." She lost all sense of pride or satisfaction in her work or any area of her life apart from the romantic involvement. The independent woman declared, in effect, that in a relationship she could only behave as someone whose behavior needed a "strong man's" influence. Not only did she give up her independence, but she also contrived a situation that was dramatic, tense, and laced with stress. Perhaps she felt that only in this way could she be part of a "passion play."

Such a woman might even look for someone who will cause her emotional pain, since she has come to associate pain with her deepest feelings and most intimate relationships (and, in extreme cases, this can spill over into the toleration of physical as well as emotional pain).

Think of the old song "Johnny, Get Angry," in which a girl begs her boyfriend to get angry and get mad to give her the "biggest lecture" she's ever had. She tells him that she wants a "brave man" and a "caveman," and that being angry will prove that he "cares, really cares" for her. His anger and her fear of him are seen as "proof" of their love. Conjuring up images of cavemen dragging women around by the hair, the 1950s song is representative of a school of romance that assigns pain as proof of love.

It's not only in pop songs that women seek out men who will cause them emotional grief or who will reject them after a brief affair. Dorothy Parker has been quoted as saying that "I require only three things of a man. He must be handsome, ruthless and stupid." Parker's line is suffused with the sharp edge of irony that characterizes her fiction. This line, however, is from her biography. Just because a woman can vivisect an unhealthy relationship by describing two mismatched characters to perfection, it unfortunately does not guarantee that she will be able to see with such clarity the details of her own intimate relationships.

Parker, who at one point married the same man twice ("There are several people at this wedding who haven't spoken to each other in years," she said at the occasion of her second marriage to Alan Campbell, "including the bride and the groom"), did not seem to herself have been particularly insightful in choosing men who would treat her well. In fact, she seemed to seek out those who would most obviously devastate her. It is a cliche that a woman is more responsive to a man's forgetfulness than to his attention, and men have noticed this as well as women.

Oscar Wilde wrote: "I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters all the time." Wilde's flippant statement is no less poignant for its "bitchiness": He focused on the drive that some women have to find the man who will colonize their emotions, enslave their passions, and rule over their lives—and so in the name of finding love, they find a fascist.

Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?

Sylvia Plath, in one of her most moving poems, asserts that "Every woman adores a Fascist," who has the "brute heart" of "a brute like you." Her poem goes on, in painful and careful verse, to describe the "Love of the rack and screw." The play on words is anything but playful; obviously "screw" is as much a word of torture as it is a description of the sexual act. In a similar manner, one of Margaret Atwood's narrators suggests that she and her lover go together like a "hook and eye." Nice, the reader might think, a domestic poem, a woman who still finds her metaphors in the world of needle and thread. Atwood, however, goes on to contextualize the terms, and they are not the comfortable images from a sewing box, but instead drawn from the hunter's arsenal, images of curved steel and pain: Atwood is describing "A fish hook. An open eye." The reader reflexively blinks, and the transition from believing something is a perfect fit to believing it will be the death of you is swift and shocking.

Novelist Margaret Drabble, for one, locates the responsibility for such misplaced desires in the way we are taught to envision "real romance" as tragic. "I blame Campion, I blame the poets," fumes Drabble in The Waterfall, "I blame Shakespeare for that farcical moment in Romeo and Juliet where he sees her at the dance, from far off, and says, 'I'll have her, because she is the one that will kill me.'"

When I read that, I thought of the high-school gymnasium dance in West Side Story, where Tony and Maria look at each other as everything else blurs. You knew from that first glance that Tony and Maria were as good as in bed and as good as in the grave—sort of coming and going at the same time.

While many women will not actually look for a painful relationship, we might well look for a man who seems to be a little "too good" for us. Women will focus on the man who apparently likes but ignores them, rather than devote their attention to the man who likes and is adoring of them. "A man who has all the time in the world for me," says my friend Anne, "just isn't busy enough."

Thomas Hardy suggests that "Women never tire of bewailing man's fickleness in love, but they only seem to snub his constancy." The words still ring true today—ringing up the cash at Amazon, that is.

More from Gina Barreca Ph.D.
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