When I was in my 20s and 30s, I specialized in dating bad boys. Call it the lure of the forbidden fruit or the ultimate revenge on my parents; I don't actually have a good explanation of why I spent more than a decade with men who had a less-than-sterling track record in the relationship arena.
Eventually, I abandoned my pattern of rejecting men simply because they were smart, kind and nice to me. But what puzzles me nowadays is how so many women my age are still drawn to bad boys -- men who don't call when they say they will; men who can't remain faithful; men who sponge off you -- doing things like stiffing you with the check in the restaurant because they always forget their wallet; men who lie to you and make you doubt your sanity when you confront them; men who disappear without explanation and then pop back into your life expecting to take up where they left off. And, of course, men who don't want what you want and yet you somehow believe that, in time, they will.
That last may be the crux of it; is there a more powerful aphrodisiac than the notion you can change someone?
At younger ages, so says popular science, it's our hormones that do us in. Bad boys look more attractive to us when we wear our ovulation goggles, found a University of Texas study last year. Our baby-seeking hormones make Mr. Wrong look like Mr. Right.
So we can write off 28-year-old World Cup alpine skier Lindsay Vonn taking up with Tiger Woods -- a show of hands please of anyone who thinks those two will go the distance -- but why are older women, whose hormones now mostly amuse themselves by turning up the body temperature at inappropriate moments, making the same foolish choices?
Men? They of course have their own foibles when it comes to making inappropriate choices in mates, but today I'm talking to the ladies: Why are you still drawn to men who behave badly even though by this point in your life, you've likely heard a million friends say that you are settling for less than you deserve?
I know it took a jolt to my system for me to move past this phase and not reject a man simply because he treated me well. Remember Groucho Marx' line about not wanting to join a club that would have him as a member? I think we don't stop accepting second-class treatment until we stop believing that's what we deserve. At least that was my experience.
My nice-guy husband and I were friends -- co-workers actually -- for years before we began dating. He was a guy friend who I would use as a sounding board and whine to regularly about whoever I was dating at the moment. I remember that during one of our regular Monday night football and pizza "dates" at my house, he moved to kiss me. I was so startled, I pushed him away. I told him I didn't have feelings for him "that way" and that at the root of it, we were very different people with different interests.
He replied that yes, we had different interests but we had one big thing in common: We both believed that I deserved to be treated well. And then he added, "I least I think you do, Ann, I'm not always sure how you feel about that." It was my wakeup slap; we were married about a year later.
That's my story, but I think with older women, there may also be something else at play.
Bad boys add the spice to lives that might otherwise feel bland, said Victoria Howard, author of five books including "Why Women Love Bad Boys." She has been counseling women in South Florida for more than eight years and is, herself, twice divorced.
"It's the James Dean attraction," she says. "How else do you explain Mick Jagger? He's not that handsome -- far from it -- but women go ape over him."
Some women, she said, just can't break the pattern. They sit by the phone waiting for the bad boy to call. They cry to their women friends when he forgets their birthday. And then they forgive him -- or more likely don't even bring up his transgressions because they don't feel they have a "right" to.
"It can be awful," Howard said. Howard was married to an older man. When she came home from not winning the Mrs. America beauty pagaent, he told her he wanted a divorce because she lost. "He told me that I wasn't pretty enough. I was a real-life Stepford wife. It took years of therapy to get over it," Howard said. Howard has been engaged three times in the past 15 years and considers it a victory that she didn't marry any of the three. "All bad boys," she reports.
We figure she wants the spice, but without the heartburn.