There are wolves among us, as Little Red Riding Hood found out. We often think of the wolf stereotype as a predatory male who goes after unwary girls. Our culture has such abundant images of this sexually predatory wolf that everyone knows to look out for him. Most girls are given a heads-up that those charming guys may be out for themselves when it comes to romance. But there is another kind of wolf we should know about, too.
First let’s recall Red Riding Hood’s story. Her mother sends her into the woods to take food to her old grandmother. A wolf stops her and inquires nicely about her destination—a casual chat, no pressure. Red Riding Hood naively tells him about the grandmother’s cottage, and the wolf hurries off to beat her there. He swallows the grandmother whole and dresses up as the grandmother in bed, waiting for Red Riding Hood to appear. When she encounters the wolf wearing Grandma’s bonnet and nightgown, she hesitates and expresses her amazement at Grandmother’s eyes, ears, and finally teeth. Her uncertainty gives the wolf time to try to eat her, too. Just then a woodsman hears her screams and dispatches the wolf, cutting open the wolf’s stomach and rescuing Grandma as well.
In this version, it is more about food than sex.
This wolf wants to nourish itself at the other’s expense, and it uses interpersonal subterfuge to lull and confuse its victim (I’m just a fellow traveler in the woods. I’m a helpless invalid in bed.) The wolf’s goal is to gobble up Red Riding Hood’s life energy in order to replenish his own.
There is a breed of human wolf that does the same, but unfortunately we are unaware of them, and so do not protect ourselves. Our society does not emphasize the destructiveness of this kind of wolf, and so we are sitting ducks for their wiles. This wolf likewise uses camouflage to get its way and usually dresses up as a person to whom you cannot say no—kind of like a helpless grandmother.
These wolves can masquerade as caring friends, respectable mothers, or needy victims of a tragic life. Unlike the seductive male version, these could be called relationship-wolves. Whatever their disguise, the message is the same: you should care about me. The relationship-wolf always offers the same deal: give unstintingly of your energy and attention to my needs. Wolves are voracious. They are always looking for their next meal, and enough is never enough. Extended interactions with these people always leave us feeling tired and on our last nerve, as though interacting with them requires a Herculean effort to stay nice.
The reason relationship-wolves are so draining is that they don’t sustain a true relationship connection. They are briefly emotionally available, and then they are not. Their offer of relationship is not really reciprocal, even though they initially may lure you in with their attentiveness and interest in your life. They seem to promise intimacy and bonding, but attempts to open up and truly share yourself with them land like duds. Instead of empathy, they may give you advice or switch the topic to themselves and their experiences. You end up feeling strangely thwarted or rushed, as if you only have a few moments to get your stuff into the conversation. You can’t really connect with them in any way that is energizing, comforting, or replenishing to you.
Relationship-wolves are interpersonally seductive by presenting themselves as extraordinarily interested in you. What big eyes! What big ears! Why, the better to focus on you, my dear! They convince you that you are a very important person in their life. But this is the opposite of what happens once you get involved. Those attentive eyes and ears disappear, and the relationship-wolf will have the lion’s share of your efforts and attention.
You will find yourself thinking about them and their problems all the time. You will find yourself feeling guilty about not giving them more time. You will secretly dread hearing from them.
The secret weapon used by these stealthy wolves is the cultural assumption that you should care deeply about certain people in certain roles or in certain predicaments. Victimhood, illness, and family relatedness are some of the trees they hide behind in order to gobble you up. They seem weak and needy, unassailably entitled to receive whatever they want. Your problems could never begin to approach the level of theirs.
In all fairness to these wolves, we must realize they were probably raised by wolves themselves. Nobody ever really listened to them or related intimately to them at an emotional level. They probably have huge unmet dependency needs as a result.
But the point is that it is not up to you to meet these needs. It is okay not to care about them. It is okay to withdraw involvement with them. I guarantee you they will find someone else. They led you to believe that you were their only hope to give them what they needed. But that was just their greed dressed up in a bonnet and nightgown.
If the person you are involved with is not a relationship-wolf, you will look forward to spending time with him or her. You will come away from interactions feeling like you got something back. You’ll be glad to see that person, especially if you just had an encounter with a wolf.
Think of the woodsman. He is the type of person who is alert to other people’s needs and comes forward to help. He is interested, protective, and can spot a wolf at a hundred yards. He thinks of other people and shows up when needed.
In addition to the wonderful woodsmen-people we can have in our lives, we all have an internal woodsman we can call on when we get in trouble with a wolf. It is that part of our personality that is strong, self-valuing, and very protective of our emotional energies. This effective part of the personality could care less if the wolf’s feelings are hurt or if the wolf goes into a rage when thwarted from gobbling others at will. Your inner woodsman will keep a safe distance around you because he sees the wolf as emotionally destructive.
Don’t be sucked into playing the role of naïve and caring Red Riding Hood with the relationship-wolves. Excuse yourself politely before you end up in their stomach.
Lindsay Gibson Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. Reach her at 757-490-7811.