OK, ladies, let’s be honest. Everyone knows one or has been one — the good girl stuck on the bad boy.

John Farrar, a counselor educator at Central Michigan University, calls it a phenomenon: the reoccurring nightmare of capable women choosing needy and dysfunctional men. Females who are charming, well educated and successfully employed mysteriously compromising their lives and futures by committing to, for lack of a better word, losers.

“It appears to cross all age, ethnic and socioeconomic lines,” Farrar says. “More descriptively, the pattern is one in which females of virtually any age, from teens to seniors, attach themselves to males who are significantly less capable, achieving or functional than they are.”

But what makes the leather-clad, motorcycle-riding bad boy so appealing? What does she see in the commitment-phobic, party animal man-child? What’s so attractive about the older, mysterious (read: oftentimes married) man?

For the past several years, Farrar, a member of the American Counseling Association, has conducted his own research into why women fall for Mr. Wrong and has come up with some interesting answers. “I have counseled and surveyed girls and women, ranging in age from 16 to 60, from high school girls to graduate students to professional women,” he says. “They all had some of the same basic answers and universal responses. They all have been in this situation at some point in their lives or have known someone — their sister or their friend — who has dealt with this.” At the time of this interview, Farrar was preparing to present his theories at the ACA Conference in Honolulu in an Education Session titled “Why Winning Women Choose Losers: A Review of the Motivations for Poor Relationship Selection.” He plans to share data collected from more than 300 survey respondents regarding the reasons for their relationship choices.

But why him?

Farrar has analyzed the survey data to pinpoint reasons why women choose negative types of men. “My investigation has led me to the identification of six causes, or ‘strands’ as I identify them, that lead to these relationship decisions,” he says. “I refer to them as strands because there appear to be many ‘fibers’ that combine to produce the motivation embodied in that strand. In addition, often women have been able to point to more than one motivation, one strand, that generated (their) relational choice.”

The strands Farrar has identified:

Low self-concept or self-esteem

“Self-concept, as it applies to why females end up in relationships with less capable males, appears to dictate to certain women that they are simply not deserving of a more worthy partner,” Farrar says. “Consequently, for women who suffer from a diminished sense of self, finding a ‘match’ can translate into pairing with a man less capable than themselves.” He adds that although her friends and family may see that the pair is obviously mismatched, the woman views her partner as an equal or believes she is getting all that she deserves from a relationship.


Farrar notes that nurturing is the most common strand identified by women in the survey. “There are, of course, many explanations for why women are drawn to this behavioral pattern,” he says. “Anthropologists would account for caretaking behavior as being biologically rooted in a female’s nature. While men, through the millennia, have been hunter-gatherers, women tended to the nest and the offspring. It is a traditionally held view that, even in the age of the computer, feminism and the two-income household, women retain their biologically driven instincts to look after others.”


Do nice guys finish last? In the case of women in this strand, yes, says Farrar. “Ironically, many women seem drawn to men who don’t treat them as well as nice guys do. These guys are seen as more exciting than the conventional, good guy.”

In many ways, he says, this strand represents a polar opposite of the first two strands. “While the first two suggest introversion, domesticity and perhaps personal uncertainty, the excitement strand represents a desire on the part of some females to back away from traditionally held values related to dating and mating. Many women and girls often speak ambiguously when they fit into the excitement strand. They speak about how the nice guys of the world don’t pose a challenge, don’t offer much in the way of adventure. Conversely, they are puzzled and, at times, disappointed in their own weakness in allowing themselves to be manipulated by the Rockys of the social world. But some girls and women are drawn to these men and that excitement nevertheless.”

Need to be nurtured

This strand plays on a woman’s desire to be cared for by what some people jokingly refer to as the “sugar daddy,” described by Farrar as, typically, an attractive male who is older than the woman by at least a few years. This man brings elements of status to the relationship, Farrar says, such as a nice car, extravagant trips or lavish spending. Young women in these relationships may feel admired or even envied by their girlfriends or others in their social circles.

“In the beginning,” Farrar says, “he is attentive, exciting, romantic and powerful in a sheltering and supportive way. Unfortunately, things change. There’s a downward progression toward possessiveness, suspicion, manipulation and, eventually, abuse. In many ways, it imitates the experiences of young women who are seduced into lives of prostitution. Promises of support, affection and protection later generate only neglect, disdain and abandonment. Women who seek to be nurtured invite essentially the same deteriorating progression. The choices of these girls and women have their roots in their developmental experiences, principally in their relationships with the men who served — or more likely, did not serve — as father figures.”


This is a common strand identified by more mature women, Farrar notes. “This strand is, in many ways, more complex and difficult to understand fully than many of the others,” he says. “Its origins may be the most difficult to trace and, in all likelihood, probably has its beginnings in many disparate areas. The female who is seeking control, either consciously or unconsciously, may be exhibiting learned behavior from a dominant mother.” In these relationships, he says, either underlying insecurity is guiding these women to needier males, or the women are simply acting out their commitment to a feminist view, which makes them determined not to be dominated by any man. Furthermore, he adds, “the controlling female is the psychological ‘mother’ to her passive-aggressive partner. The woman who seeks control is buying into a trade-off situation. The compromise involves tolerating the nonachieving behavior of a mate for the right and ability to make the decisions, to call the shots, in the relationship.”


Chemistry is the miscellaneous, “there’s just something about him — a certain je ne sais quoi,” catchall strand. “Chemistry addresses the inexplicable biological magnetism and is aimed at accounting for relationships which do not fit into any of the previous five (strands),” Farrar says. “It accounts for relationships between individuals for whom there are no obvious common interests or personality matches. This strand accounts for why a given woman may concede that a given male is attractive without actually being attracted to him. Conversely, it also explains why a woman is drawn to a male who, on a more rational, cognitive level, she concedes has seemingly little to offer in terms of physical appearance or social status.”

The chemistry strand also includes biologists’ theories on pheromones, endorphins and motivations driven by unconscious genetic matching. Farrar admits that it might sound extreme, but says the chemistry strand offers an explanation for relationship choices that seemingly cannot be accounted for otherwise.

Preventative measures

After identifying the strands, Farrar took his research a step further and developed strategies to help women choose healthier relationships. Among his suggestions:

  • Recognize personal tendencies.
  • Recognize that sense of self determines direction.
  • Understand that personal beliefs and ideas are the basis of personal choices.
  • Learn the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships.
  • While biology is a powerful influence, understand that individuals ultimately retain the power to shape their choices.
  • Do the right thing. Come to grips with family background, values and cultural influences.

Farrar says many people ask him why a man is so interested in researching such a woman-centered topic. “I tell them I’m just a data gatherer,” he says. “I’m just cataloging what women have told me.” He adds that his goal is not only to assist women in recognizing poor relationship choices, but also to help parents educate and protect their daughters. He admits that his crusade was inspired by the struggles of his own daughter, who, while in high school, suffered from what Farrar calls a dreadful case of “loser boyfriend syndrome.” Farrar strongly encouraged her to attend an out-of-state university and is happy to report she is now, at age 27, cured and happily married to a “good guy.”

A woman’s perspective

ACA member Nina Atwood has written and published three self-help books on relationship issues, including the highly successful Be Your Own Dating Service: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding and Maintaining Healthy Relationships. Her most recent book, Temptations of the Single Girl: The 10 Dating Traps You Must Avoid, also taps into why women choose what she refers to as “wounded men.” Her take on the subject of finding the “right” man is more of a “been there, done that” approach, with lessons learned the hard way. But drawing from her own past unsuccessful relationships, as well as 20 years of experience in private practice, this licensed professional counselor claims she has figured out how to date more effectively and is only too happy to share those secrets.

“I’m a singles coach. I want to help people while they are in the process of choosing a life partner as opposed to helping them figure out the messes they get into after they are married,” she says. “There is an educational piece to getting into a good relationship and actions you can do to help ensure you are getting involved in a healthy commitment.”

Atwood says she has pinpointed 10 temptations women should avoid in relationships:

  1. Denying your true desires. Solution: Be honest with yourself. You do want a loving, committed relationship that leads to marriage.
  2. Loving a wounded guy. Solution: Hold out for a healthy guy who is your equal in every way.
  3. Dating without integrity. Solution: Make choices you can feel proud of and that are true to your deepest values.
  4. Choosing high-risk relationships. Solution: Make you your top priority. Pay fierce attention to the warning bells and red flags that tell you a relationship isn’t in your best interest.
  5. Settling for less. Solution: Remain carefully detached until you meet a real candidate for marriage.
  6. Aiming for the fairy tale. Solution: Be yourself and look for the same level of authenticity in the guys you date. Aim for a connection at the level of core values.
  7. Getting sexual too soon. Solution: Postpone sex for at least six months while you really get to know a guy. Avoid sex unless there is a real love and commitment.
  8. Rushing into the relationship. Solution: Pace a relationship for real discovery and take a “we’ll see” attitude while it unfolds.
  9. Taking the lead. Solution: Let him take the lead, but be aware that what he offers up front is as good as it gets.
  10. Sacrificing authenticity to get the guy. Solution: Tell guys the truth. Be real and honest.

One of the biggest temptations women should avoid is falling for the wounded man, Atwood says. “That’s the guy who uses his issues in life, whether it’s a rough childhood, an addiction or whatever he is struggling with, as an excuse to avoid responsibility and commitment,” she says. She adds that women sometimes find themselves tempted by wounded men because these men are often very charming.

Women often recognize up front that this type of man has a few issues, Atwood says, but they also notice and are drawn in by his good qualities. They take him on as a sort of personal project, she says, thinking they can help to fix him, heal him or solve his problems. “She thinks if she just loves him enough, he will heal and then eventually give her what she wants or needs,” Atwood says. “The problem is you can’t rehabilitate the wounded guy by loving him. The way to rehabilitate the wounded guy is to kick him in the (rear end), confront him and make him face up to his issues. But most women don’t want to do those things. It’s exhausting, it’s draining, and you never get your needs met. We are so hardwired to want to nurture or caretake. Often, (a woman) will try to be the caretaker and completely overlook the fact that she needs a partner who can also care for her and meet her needs too. It’s a two-way street.”

Atwood strongly suggests that women keep the pace of the relationship slow enough to really discover the character and values of the man they are interested in. “(Women) make the mistake of thinking, ‘This guy is cute and hot and makes my heart go pitter-pat,’ and they just dive right in. You have to take a step back. Women need to implement a dating process that will protect them while they are figuring out if this is someone who is compatible and has good character.” A successful dating process incorporates all the “solutions” highlighted in her 10 temptations to avoid, she says.

“Women should look for courtship. It’s an old-fashioned word, but the principle of it still holds true. He must be willing to pursue you. Today, women don’t even know how to be courted — they don’t have any expectation of it,” Atwood says. “But as a woman, one of the most important decisions you will ever make in your life is your choice of a life partner. Make a poor one, and the consequences could be devastating for years. Make a good one, and you have the foundation for a lifetime of happiness.”

Atwood is a self-proclaimed slow learner at the dating game, but three times proved to be the charm. After two divorces, she finally found Mr. Right and has been happily married for eight years. Additional information about Atwood’s dating strategies is available at www.singlescoach.com.

Angela Kennedy is a past senior writer at Counseling Today.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org