Dating: What’s Your Compass? How to Get Rid of Toxic Guys (or Girls)

Last night, I was at a business networking mixer here in Los Angeles.  As the event winded down, I was talking to these two lovely young ladies — let’s call them Ashley and Sarah — who seemed really preoccupied about a message Ashley was composing on her Blackberry.

They kept on going back and forth, with Sarah editing Ashley — “No, say it this way” — and then Ashley re-editing the edit.

Eagle-eyed professional that I am, I thought, gee, could this possibly be about a boy?  They apologized for ignoring me and sheepishly admitted, yes, it was about a boy — specifically, the one Ashley was dating.  Sorta.

So why was it so hard to compose this message?  “Because he’s being a douche-bag,” Ashley said, rolling her eyes.  I sensed that ‘douche-bag’ was a term of art, so as a scientist I had to figure out exactly what rendered this fellow a douche-bag.

As it turns out, the boy — ‘DB’ henceforth — was being unclear in his intentions.  He said he cared for her but his career came first.  When asked point blank whether he cared for her, he’d offer evasive, non-committal answers like “Well, I’ve been with you 8 months now, haven’t I?”

To this, I told Ashley that I’ve heard a guy say “You are amazing and wonderful; it’s a privilege to be with you and I absolutely adore you” before, and it sounded different from “Gee, well I haven’t run away yet.”

We talked for a while, and the summary of it was that Ashley was clearly unfulfilled in the relationship.  Yet she kept on making excuses for DB.

Why?  She gave two reasons.  First: “It sucks to be single — this way at least I’ve got somebody.” And second: “I just feel great around him when he is around.”


Let’s parse the first statement for a moment.  Somehow Ashley’s thinking that mediocre treatment from a guy is better than no treatment at all.

This is a very, very dangerous assumption.  Because it leads you straight down what I call the ladder of compromise.  In the study of organizational behavior, it’s called normalization of deviance.

It goes something like this: a guy does something which you don’t like all that much — maybe shows up late.  You don’t say anything.  So he keeps on showing up late.  Pretty soon, you’re regularly waiting a whole hour for him to show up.

Or say a guy puts you down a little and you don’t complain, because he’s so great in all these other departments.  Your unconscious is always working to avoid cognitive dissonance, so on some deep level it accepts that this is the level of treatment you deserve.

Now your self-esteem is in the toilet, so you think the next guy who comes along who treats you well is crazy and instead glom on to guys who serially treat you like dirt.

What you’ve done is that, little by little, you’ve allowed poor treatment to be okay.  You’ve normalized the deviance.

Ladies (and gentlemen, too) — this is a very pernicious thing.  Once you allow the foot in the door for a little mistreatment, you’re effectively allowing a lot more of it to happen down the road.  Heck, psychologists even have a name for it — the ‘foot in the door technique.’

That’s why you have to practice zero-tolerance when it comes to matters of fulfillment and being treated well.

This is how my smart, beautiful friend Holly (featured in the introduction to The Tao of Dating for Women) ended with a deadbeat who physically abused her.  For 1.5 years.

This is how another very smart, absolutely gorgeous woman ended up with a husband who beat her up routinely — for 12 years.  And is still with him.

Repeat after me: “I will only spend time with people who treat me exceptionally well and make me feel like the queen of the universe.”

Why?  Because you have a duty to the world to be the best possible version of you — so you can shine your light as far and wide as possible.  I’m telling you — the world needs you now more than ever.  So when you let a guy get away with doing something — anything — to diminish that light, you’re shirking your duty to the world.

So henceforth, I want you to practice ruthless compassion for yourself.  Sure, the guy’s cute, and you feel great when he’s around.  But if he’s putting you down instead of lifting you up, it’s time for him to go.  Like, now.

Granted, because of the brew of chemicals in your head and the unconscious compromises you’ve already made, this is a tough thing to do.

You also have to admit that you’ve been wrong — totally, completely wrong.  Your ego hates that.  Get over it, girl — don’t let your ego ruin your life.

Also, notice Ashley’s second reason: “I just feel so good when he is around.”  I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but the way she described it to me was exactly the way a junkie describes a hit of crack or heroin.  Basically, a drug.

There was no description of mutual enrichment, support, deepening of the spirit.  Just a jolt of good feeling, which is the essence of what drugs do — empty euphoria.

Well, guess what ladies — neurophysiologically, guys operate in the exact same way that drugs do.  So he’s not just like a drug — he is a drug.  And just as bad for you.

And we all know how tough it is to get off drugs.

In the interest of making this article eminently practical, this is how you rid your life of the drug of Toxic Dude (or Dudette):

1) Detox.

This means you stay away from him for at least one week — two’s even better.  Going on a trip and having no contact with him is one of the more effective ways.  Technically, it allows your brain to downregulate receptors and adapt to normal chemistry.  Practically, it gets him off your mind.

2) Get help.

Like Odysseus, canvass your compadres to keep you away from toxic dude, since you know you’re too weak to do it yourself (see my post on the Odysseus Protocol).  Listen to them — they often know what’s good for you better than you do.

3) Do better.

Hang out with people who do elevate you and make you feel wonderful, and notice the contrast.  Heck, maybe even go on a date with a nice guy for a change.  It gets a lot harder to go back to instant ramen noodles once you’ve had gourmet pasta.

The other thing that the girls were doing which I found interesting was trying to figure out why DB behaved the way he did.  They spent a lot of time and energy guessing what this meant and that could mean.

And you know what?  It doesn’t matter.  At all.

There’s an old Buddhist parable about a man being shot in the leg with an arrow.  Instead of taking care of the arrow stuck in his leg, he asks, “Who shot the arrow?  Which tribe was he from?  Who’s his father?  What kind of bow was it?”

Umm, dude, newsflash: there’s an arrow in your leg.  Why don’t we take care of that first.

Similarly, the only thing that matters is how well you’re being treated — whether you’re feeling fulfilled or not.  That is your internal compass, and the only criterion that matters.  Don’t worry where the arrow came from.

You have to realize that no man is a complete ogre, so sure — he’s going to have some redeeming qualities. And yeah, you’re not totally nuts, so you hang out with him because it does feel good on some level.

But I urge you to set your standards high, ladies (and guys).  And once you’ve set them, do not tolerate any subpar treatment.  I’m telling you that you deserve the best because it’s absolutely true.  All you have to do is convince yourself that it’s true and live accordingly.

4 Comments on “Dating: What’s Your Compass? How to Get Rid of Toxic Guys (or Girls)”

  1. Margarita

    Wow, I can relate so much with what is being said here… I’ve been with my BF for almost 18 months next week and I ache in lack of fulfillment, I am at a very unstable, slow evolving stage in my life, with many debts trying to make my professional dream a reality while sometimes feeling like a fish in a net just millimeters away from the water, trapped I’m gasping for air hoping that if I hang in there a little longer I’ll make it … but sometimes I am just exhausted and just get paralyzed… at which point even if I was put back into the ocean I still feel be petrified… I am hypersensitive, and my self-esteem has gone way down, I’ve tried breaking up with my BF several times, but we last decided to take one step at a time, gave back each other’s keys and now I don’t even remember when he last stayed at my house, his house is his kingdom and that is where he likes spending time, and I join him whenever he chooses to invite me … I keep thinking that once I get my life together my relationship will get better too, thinking that it must since, I’ll be a better person…
    However, I wonder if only as a self-fulfilled, confident, wealthy, independent, skinny person I can be attractive, desirable to him, like the two women before me who used him and treated him like dirt, but somehow were irresistibly attractive to him and clearly meant something special to him, although he gets annoyed whenever I bring them up… it has become a taboo subject… I feel so far away from him, I have grown tired of just talking about superficial, break-the-ice type of questions with him and whenever I bring something deep, he tries to see it as a problem to solve and does not get involved with his emotions, only his analytical mind.
    He doesn’t like asking for help, and although he can be very helpful he is annoyed when people ask him for help, I can hear it in his voice, it soaks me dry, makes me feel like going far, far away, wishing that I had not asked, had not interrupted, had not ever existed…. I was raised in a male dominant home, and this sometimes reminds me so much of my dad wanting perfection, but no interruptions, no weakness allowed… which is weird, because when I met my BF he was shy, introverted, quiet, insecure, socially awkward…
    I feel love for him, tenderness, attraction, respect for his accomplishments and growing confidence, and although I know he loves me in his own way, I many times wonder if we are good for each other, or I am just floating along, letting time pass waiting for safe waters to appear, or a clear signal, waiting for something to click in me, or in him, that will make it clear that we are meant or not for each other, otherwise why waste each other’s time…. or maybe I’m supposed to learn a lesson from it all, that I still have no clue of..
    His brother’s wedding is coming soon in 11 days, his brother is marrying one my friends so my BF is the best man and I am one of the bridesmaids, if I can only make it to the wedding…
    Please help. Thank you..

    1. Dr Alex Benzer Post author

      Sounds like you’re miserable and you’re not right for each other. This is exactly what the article was about. You have full permission to move on.

  2. Katie

    What happens if you got out but you can’t detox because you work in very close quarters with the guy every day? He’s still trying to seduce you, and you haven’t fallen for it yet but you’re afraid one day you will again…and quitting the job is not an option…

    1. Sunshinecookie

      I’m in the same boat. I’m trying to detox since I found out my toxic guy has another girlfriend! I work with him daily. I’ve just shut down rather than confront as it was a sex based relationship and I need my job. Now he’s chasing like crazy. And the mad thing? I want him back like a drug.
      Let me know if you can suggest a solution x