What do you do when you find yourself trapped with a partner who thinks your illness is the hottest thing about you?
"Think of it this way," writes Plenty of Fish user JPD0414. "If you have a girl who's already happy and confident, there isn't much for you to improve, and you won't affect her life as much. But if she's depressed or has a crappy home life, you have the chance to be one of the few good things in her life and she'll like you more."
This anonymous internet nice guy goes on to explain that he has a real thing for girls with mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. You see, their mental ill health works in his favour! This white knight can stride in on his big shiny horse and rescue them from the depths of their own minds. He is there to save them from themselves, for that is his gift: he is a special man with a real passion for manipulating women.
In response, other users agree that "crazy chicks are the wildest in bed".
If you've had a long-term mental illness, you might be aware of the kind of men who look to women to satisfy their white knight fantasy. If you haven't, you only need to look to the internet for proof: scour forums and you'll find male teens asking questions like, "Why do I think suicidal girls are hot?" and young women wondering, "Why is this boy hitting on me more when I'm sad?"
There was even a study conducted in 2012 by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin that found, in general, men are more likely to go after you if you look "psychologically vulnerable" – but only for short-term involvement, i.e. sex.
So what do you do when you find yourself trapped with a partner who thinks your illness is the most attractive thing about you?
The problem, of course, is that these relationships don't tend to start as transparently as that. At the beginning, the attention paid to your mental illness might well be reassuring; finding someone who will openly say your depression is "fascinating" can almost seem like a relief – it's a sign they won't ignore you when you're sad or leave you because of something you can't control.
"I felt like I was being accepted," says Rachel of her first boyfriend, Chad, who would fetishise her depression and request that she cut herself to prove she truly loved him. "I felt like finding someone who would not turn their back on me for my mental health problems, especially at 17, would be impossible. In the beginning I saw it as someone accepting me for who I am, flaws and all. And the fact that he found my flaws attractive made me feel like we had a deeper connection."
Yet, really, the connection is superficial. You become the manic pixie dream girl. As the girls I speak to point out, your sickness is there to give the guy's life a sense of meaning and depth – which is exactly what he craves, granted you're not too overbearing and, you know, he actually has to look after you too much.
"Ultimately, Chad was a narcissist in its purest form," explains Rachel. "I think he was drawn to girls who had mental health problems because that was a reflection of himself. He also liked to assert his male dominance a lot, which meant he looked for broken birds that he could bend to his will. I don't think these guys want to save us – they want us to stay on the floor so they're always above us."
Trying to make some sense out of why certain men would behave like this, I reach out to practicing psychologist and therapist Eliana Barbosa.
"It's hard to understand completely, because each case is a case," she says. "But I think you can mainly split this behaviour between men who are sadistic – who get pleasure off seeing a woman in pain – and men who are emulating the cultural aspects of misogyny by dominating these women through their low self-esteem to assert themselves. Depression sometimes can make you destitute of your own desires, so girls who are struggling can end up submitting themselves to another, in order to feel some type of desire. It's not a conscious decision that these girls, or boys, who end up in manipulative relationships are making. These types of men take advantage of something that is lacking in these people's lives."
Lisa's relationship with her ex started as any would: they were happy for a while, she told him about her past traumas and disclosed her struggles with major depression and generalised anxiety disorder. He sounded sympathetic, making it clear that – due to his vast previous experience – he would know what to do and how to act if she experienced a depressive episode or a panic attack. It turned out he didn't at all.
"All his exes were also mentally ill," says Lisa of her ex-boyfriend. "He wouldn't exactly brag about it, but he would make it sound like all of them were still somehow in love with him and that any past break-ups destroyed these girls' mental health even further. He even implied that one of them got so much worse after they broke up that her fatal bike accident was probably her killing herself over him. Later, I found out she wasn't even driving and was in a new relationship at the time."
A person who actively seeks out someone who is mentally ill as "easy prey" to their manipulation is clearly someone trying to feel powerful. And, of course, once they progress into the relationship, in many cases – sadly – they will end up exerting a huge amount of dominance over their partner, which can make it very hard for that partner to break things off. But it does happen.
"Girls who were able to end things were still able to lay out boundaries," says Barbosa. "Regardless of how much abuse they endure, there comes a point where they go, 'No, this is enough,' which means there's still some strength left."
Lisa's boyfriend had a habit of being abusive by referring to her mental illnesses whenever she would display a negative emotion. "He would start fights over text, and several times he said, 'Go get yourself some treatment' in a pejorative way, even though he used to discourage me from going to my psych appointments," she says. "Whenever I said I liked him, he'd call me a liar. I broke up with him once and that made the emotional abuse come down harder. Any word and I was a crazy, hysterical, unloving bitch."
After a close friend shared her experience of previous emotional abuse, Lisa cut things off for good.
Dealing with mental illness in relationships is never easy, but now Lisa and Rachel are with people who respect them as partners and have stuck with them through difficult periods without being awful. Which is – surprise, surprise – a perfectly doable thing when you see your partner as an actual person and not just an ingredient in your own personal narrative.
"The difference between my ex and some other guys who fetishise mental illness is that he wanted to make me worse," says Lisa. "Most fetishists believe they will be a cure, the answer to all the problems. Those [ones] become even more abusive when they realise they're not."
To any women who might currently be dating men with white knight syndrome, or men who want you to be worse so they can feel better, Rachel has some pertinent advice.
"Those guys will eat at you, very subtly, until there's nothing left and you won't even notice when everything is gone," she says. "It's important to try to think about the parts of yourself that you think are worth noticing, and think of why he isn't looking. Most of the time, it's because he's too busy looking at himself. Be strong, ask for support and just fucking leave."
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