Why we love people who hurt us

I recently read a very interesting book which included a relationship test based on Ross A. Rosenberg’s ‘Continuum of Self Theory’. This theory explains why we’re attracted to our opposites; in this case: people who hurt us. In today’s post I give a little background information about the theory and list the 20 questions that allow you to ‘test’ your own relationship.

Rosenberg’s book ‘The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us’ explains why we’re attracted to our opposites and can end up in a dysfunctional relationship. He developed The Continuum of Self (COS) Theory to explain why all people are drawn to a certain type of “oppositely attractive partner”1. More specifically, COS explains why relationships become dysfunctional, which is often related to one of the partners having a greater emotional health than the other. The theory also explains why many people remain in a relationship filled with anger, resentment or anxiety.

The Continuum of Self Scale

The COS theory is based on a scale, with which you can measure whether you are more focused on giving or on receiving love, care and respect in your relationship. The scale is a continuum, ranging from -5 (someone completely focused on the relational and personal needs of others) to +5 (someone completely focused on the relational and personal needs of self). If someone scores -5 on this continuum, it means he/she completely neglects his/her own needs regarding, love care and respect. These people are labelled ‘co-dependents’ by Rosenberg and are often driven by a fear to be alone. People scoring high on the opposite end of the scale, +5, are pathological narcissists who suffer from a personality disorder and/or addiction. These people are exclusively focused on their own needs, at the expense of their partner’s needs.  Ideally, a couple scores in the middle of the COS scale (0), with an equal balance between the needs of the self and the needs of the other in a relationship. A relationship becomes dysfunctional when partners score on opposite ends of the scale, and according to Rosenberg these people are often drawn to each other like magnets.

A healthy or dysfunctional relationship?

So, the COS scale can predict how healthy or dysfunctional a relationship is, or how stable (enduring relationships, unlikely to break up) or unstable (likely to end, with frequent conflict). Scoring either positive or negative on the scale does not mean that one score is better than the other, it simply implies that both partners score on opposite sides. The further both scores move away from the middle of the scale (0), the less “mutuality and reciprocity is evident in the relationship”2. A score of zero represents an equal, exact balance of giving and receiving love, care and respect. Thus, a zero is an ideal score, but not a realistic one: most people fall somewhere on either side of the scale.

The test

Curious where you and your partner fall on the COS scale? Below is a test I found in a book I read, based on Rosenberg’s COS theory. Score the first 10 questions on behalf of your partner and the second from your perspective. A higher score indicates a score at the extreme end of the scale (either – or +). Note that I used ‘he’ in the questions, but you can substitute that for ‘she’.

Carefully read the following items and score them from 1 (completely disagree) to 10 (completely agree) on behalf of your partner.

  1. My partner has trouble really listening to me.
  2. When I manage to speak, my partner quickly interrupts me, takes over the conversation, or changes the subject.
  3. My partner is not really interested in what I have to say, what I am feeling, or what I need. He hardly ever responds to what I say.
  4. My partner rarely asks me questions about my life, how I’m feeling, what I’m doing, etcetera.
  5. My partner makes fun of me or criticizes my life, my ideas, my work or my feelings.
  6. When I’m feeling bad, my partner doesn’t notice or finds it difficult to be there for me or to comfort me.
  7. My partner is often irritated or emotionally unavailable; indifferent.
  8. I am the caregiver in our relationship. I take care of my partner’s emotional needs.
  9. My partner often tells me what to do or what not to do, and gets angry when I don’t listen or disagree.
  10. I often feel intimidated by my partner and do what he says to avoid confrontation.

Now, add up all scores and divide by 10. If the score is high, between 7 and 10, that means your partner is probably close to the +4 (closer to 7) and +5 (closer to 10) end of the COS scale, which can indicate a narcissistic or borderline personality disorder.

For the following 10 questions, do the same as for the questions above but now from your perspective. Score the items from 1 to 10.

  1. I don’t mind listening to my partner for hours, without speaking too much myself.
  2. When he speaks, I barely interrupt him, listen carefully and don’t change the subject.
  3. I am always interested in what my partner has to say, what he’s feeling, what he needs and I always respond to what he’s saying.
  4. I often asks questions about his life, how he’s feeling, what he’s doing, etcetera.
  5. I never make fun of or criticize my partner’s ideas, work or feelings.
  6. When my partner’s feeling bad, I notice right away and find it easy to be there for him and to comfort him.
  7. I am rarely irritated or emotionally unavailable, nor indifferent towards my partner.
  8. I am the caregiver in our relationship. I take care of my partner’s emotional needs.
  9. I rarely tell my partner what to do, or what not to do and I rarely get angry when he doesn’t do what I ask or disagrees.
  10. My partner is rarely intimidated by me and will rarely do what I want to avoid confrontation.

Again: add up all scores and divide the total by 10. If your score is between 7 and 10 you are probably at the -4 (closer to 7) and -5 (closer to 10) end of the COS scale, which suggests you are co-dependent; completely focused on giving love, care and respect. If your partner scores just as high as you do, but at the opposite end of the scale, you are likely stuck in a dysfunctional relationship.

Here are the meanings for all scores on the sale:

  1. Healthy/Balanced: (0), (-1 & +1) and (-2 & +2)
  2. Problematic: (-3 & +3)
  3. Unhealthy/Dysfunctional: (-4 & +4) and (-5 & +5)

I found it very interesting to answer these questions and think about me and my partner’s roles in our relationship. I am definitely more of a caregiver, but not so much that I can call myself ‘co-dependent’ (thank God). Whether you agree with Rosenberg’s theory or not, it’s quite interesting to answer these questions from both your and your partner’s perspective and think about how and why the answers differ. It really changed my perspective on why so many people are attracted to their complete opposite; whether good or bad. I didn’t go into too much detail about the theory’s background in this post, but if you want to know more I recommend reading Rosenberg’s book or go to

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