How to avoid problem people

Originally posted to a members-only website, this post got over 180 comments (mostly positive), over 100 likes, and many requests to post it publicly where readers can refer their friends and family. So here it is. This page always contains the most recent article version (currently version 3.4), so send your friends here.

Want to print, link to, quote, or reprint this post? Read this.


You’ve known good people. You’ve probably also known some obvious “bad apples.” But for many of us, the biggest problems come from friends, colleagues, and dating partners who seem okay at first, then end up causing major and unnecessary disruption, drama, and disaster.

I’m not talking about good people who sometimes make mistakes, but then try to put things right. Everybody makes mistakes. And I’m not talking about good people who struggle to cope with big problems like depression, failing health, failing relationships, family problems, single parenthood, Alzheimer’s, mental problems, or mood disorders. Everybody I know has some significant problems and issues. No, I’m talking about people who repeatedly cause major life problems, harm, and trauma to those around them, either deliberately or unintentionally. People who do things such as:

  • sleep around without telling you and without using protection, and give you an STD
  • become emotionally or physically abusive, or molest your kids
  • claim they have a vasectomy or tubal, then you or they end up pregnant
  • dump you without warning, while you are in the hospital or otherwise emotionally vulnerable
  • tell your friends, family, and social network lies that damage your reputation and relationships.

These people are “emotional leeches” — sometimes called “emotional vampires” or “toxic people.”

The bad news: Emotional leeches are all around us. The number of people with serious personality and mental problems likely to cause problems for others is significant — at least 1 in 16. [1] Add in the people who are simply hostile, clueless, manipulative, addicted, violent, or destructive, and you get a much larger number.

The good news: You can learn to detect and screen out most emotional leeches before they disrupt your life or damage you.

And you can do this based on their behaviors, without needing to label or judge them. This article explains how.


1. Introduction
2. Filter problem people out of your life
3. How to use these tips
4. How to read the signals emotional leeches send (so you notice the warning signs)
5. Problem behaviors, with examples
6. What makes people vulnerable to emotional leeches?
7. How to close gaps in your “spam filters”
8. How to pick good people — what to look for
9. Conclusion and extra goodies: footnotes, resources, and permissions

Part 2: Filter problem people out of your life

Is it even possible to screen problem people out of your life?

Yes. I learned how, and you can too.

I used to be a major magnet for emotional leeches. Going into new relationships, I didn’t know whether I’d found a friend for life who would never do me wrong (I was lucky to have a few of those), or someone so mentally ill, dysfunctional, or emotionally abusive they would cause me serious harm.

Worse, the personality disorder and emotional problems I had then made me an emotional leech. I glommed onto people and caused turmoil and trouble in their lives. Yet I had no idea that I was acting abusive.

Today, all that has changed. I have good “people filters” that screen out users, abusers, and trouble magnets. And I’ve changed almost all the behaviors that used to cause turmoil for other people.

Because I understand emotional leeches from both sides — as both a perpetrator and a victim — I can help you learn to adjust your mental “spam filters” to keep problem people out of your life.

Strategies for identifying problem people

In 2008, sex educator Jay Wiseman started an online discussion about “emotional leeches” — individuals who repeatedly cause harm to others, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Jay found the victims’ stories creepily similar. Often the perpetrator is charming and unusually attractive. Many predators target people who are emotionally vulnerable, new to a particular dating scene, or both.

The victims of emotional leeches are often sexually, physically, and/or emotionally abused. They get their hearts broken, get swindled, or acquire an incurable STD. The abuser may leave them broke, caring for a child, or paying child support.

In the kink (BDSM) scene, where people play with power, roles, and violence, distinguishing between consensual activities and abuse can be even trickier. Most people recognize that a partner who hits them is doing something wrong. If hitting is sometimes part of play, how does a person distinguish playful hitting from abuse? Many types of kink play, such as bondage, are potentially risky, so a mistake in judgment can be costly.

To deal with this problem, Jay proposed creating a list of “red flag” behaviors that would help people identify and avoid emotional leeches BEFORE they have a chance to do harm. He especially wanted to target behaviors that indicate severe and/or dangerous mental health problems, such as narcissism, sociopathy, and borderline personality disorder. He wrote:

“Such a list of ‘red-flag’ behaviors would, in my opinion, work much better than creating a ‘predator’s list’ because such a list of names would be (a) difficult to create, especially with any reasonable fairness… (plus, new ‘vampires’ come along with some frequency), and (b) a defamation lawsuit looking for a place to happen. On the other hand, teaching [people] to watch out for certain red-flag behaviors would likely be much more effective — and help facilitate the detection of the ‘newer’ predators.”

A list of problem behaviors also sidesteps other big issues:

  • It makes the problem person’s intent irrelevant. You don’t need to know if a problem person wants to cause harm (sociopath), doesn’t consider other people’s welfare (narcissist), can’t avoid problem behaviors (mood or mental problems), or is only clueless. You simply respond to the behavior and get out of harm’s way.
  • A behaviors list avoids the issue of amateurs diagnosing/labeling others as “mentally ill,” “sociopaths,” “personality disordered,” etc. Instead, people can simply evaluate others in terms of how much trouble they’re likely to cause. Given a red-flag list for THAT, individuals with more extreme problem behaviors automatically end up on the “lots of trouble” end of the spectrum without any need for “diagnosis” or labeling.
  • A list that focuses on current behaviors detects people who cause problems now. It catches then new predators. And it avoids screening out good people who caused problems in the past but have now changed, and people who came from problem environments but aren’t problems themselves.

I liked the concept, so I wrote this article. Thanks to feedback from many people, it continues to evolve and improve.

While this article focuses primarily on friends, dating, and intimate relationships, the same methods will help you avoid problem bosses, employees, etc. People are people, wherever you go.

Part 3: How to use these tips

Focus on behavior, not labels. It doesn’t matter if someone is (or isn’t) called “sociopathic,” “mentally ill,” or “addicted.” It does matter how they behave toward you and other people.

Find the patterns in people’s behaviors and attitudes. It’s not a person’s individual actions that are so problematic, or important. It’s that person’s big, relatively unchanging attitudes and pervasive patterns of behavior that will allow you to detect potential abusers before they cause major problems.

One minor insult, by itself, is not a problem — and abusers know it. Victims talk themselves into overlooking “minor” infractions that signal big patterns of abuse, stay in the relationship, and get burned. Wise people detect the patterns in a person’s small actions, and use those to determine the person’s likely future behavior.

Most leeches aren’t problems all the time. That’s why they’re so hard to detect. Most can seem like good people, and many actually are good people… some of the time, with certain people, or in certain environments. A leech may be widely liked and admired by those who don’t know them well or haven’t encountered their nasty side. When a likable leech accidentally or deliberately harms someone, it’s hard for people to believe, and victims who speak out may get shunned or accused of lying.

You’re not looking for some “ideal” person, but for someone who fits YOU. Behaviors you loathe might work fine for someone else. Behaviors that work fine for someone else could be a disaster for you.

Fortunately, the kinds of behaviors that tend to cause major, repeated problems are fairly consistent. I list them later in this article.

Get to know people before you get involved or commit. This simple tactic will avoid most major disasters with potential partners. The worst types of leeches (including sociopaths and narcissists) typically lack the patience to make it through a slow screening process. This also gives you plenty of opportunity to observe the person’s behavior.

Don’t take a person’s word about themselves and their relationships; check! Talk to the person’s friends and former mates. Ask for references. If the person can’t give any, or they are on bad terms with everyone they used to date or know, that’s a warning sign in itself.

Just remember that relationship quality affects behavior. You know from your own experience that you behave worse in lousy relationships, better in good ones. Better behavior usually happens when more of a person’s needs get met, and fewer of their emotional “hot buttons” get pushed. That means a past relationship — even a really bad past relationship — isn’t always a great predictor of someone’s future behavior. However, when you check multiple relationships, you’ll usually see patterns that can help you figure out what the person is likely to do in the future.

Get help if you need it. If your people filters don’t work correctly, or you have trouble reading social cues, get someone who is “people savvy” to help you vet potential partners. Don’t simply pick someone who seems “popular” or says they are good at relationships. Instead, look for results! You want someone who knows a bunch of people and has good relationships with them. A good candidate keeps friends long-term, and has few significant problems with the people close to them. This shows that their people filters work well for them, which means their ability to evaluate people will probably be able to help you.

The best time to leave a relationship is before it gets serious. Once someone falls in love with an emotional leech, commits to them, marries them, or has a child with them, leaving becomes much more costly and difficult. Wise daters date a wide variety of people (since someone unexpected might turn out to be a great match), but also bail early when there are signs of trouble.

Rather than labeling or judging people, I find it most useful to think in terms of “How much trouble is this person likely to cause me and others, how much of the time, for how long?” That is your gold standard.

When you notice behavior, outcomes, or circumstances you think might be a red flag, ask yourself:

  • How big and how bad is this problem now?
  • How pervasive is the problem? Does it happen in other contexts? With other people?
  • How persistent is problem? (Longstanding patterns usually won’t change.) Ask people who have known the person for a long time.
  • How bad will this problem be if it gets worse? (If your date bullies or manipulates the waiter, imagine them doing the same thing to you. Sooner or later, they probably will.)

Most problem behavior is unintentional. While some problem people are actively malicious, the vast majority mean well. They cause problems because of their past traumas, lack of resourcefulness, and counterproductive strategies. Many have no idea of the harm they do. Therefore I try to to treat each person with compassion, while staying out of the way of their problem behaviors.

Part 4: How to read the signals emotional leeches send

In my experience, people ALWAYS communicate their underlying agenda and/or attitudes in some way, very quickly, when you meet them. Your subconscious mind communicates with their subconscious mind, mostly outside both people’s awareness, using subtle signals.

That’s how someone who has had a string of physically abusive relationships can go into a bar containing 50 eligible people, and end up with the one who is physically abusive. It wasn’t chance; it was subconscious communication.

Learn to read these subtle signals, and you can spot most problem people right away.

Leech-detection strategies

+ Assume that little behaviors arise from big attitudes. If your date is rude to the waiter for no reason, they think it’s okay to treat people that way. Which means they will probably be rude to YOU for no reason at some point in the future. If they’re rude to others repeatedly, it’s a sure bet. Remember that it might take a few months or even a year or more before you become the target.

+ Pay MUCH more attention to a person’s behaviors, and to the outcomes they produce, than to their stories. Even a story they believe might not be true.

Some problem people will lie to you. This might be deliberate and conscious, or they might genuinely believe their own falsehoods and stories. For example:

  • They deny doing the problematic things they did, or claim you misinterpreted their actions.
  • They present excuses and justifications for their problem behavior to convince you it shouldn’t be a problem for you.
  • They accuse you of overreacting, even when their behavior is outrageous and your response is reasonable.
  • To put you on the defensive and distract you from the real issue (their behavior), they may accuse you of doing what they actually did. (When they break an agreement, they will accuse you of breaking an agreement.)

Stay focused on behaviors and outcomes! If your date says they respect limits, but behaves in some way that violates your limits, they just showed you they don’t respect limits. Ignore their excuses and justifications; focus on what they actually did. If they claim to be a good partner and you feel bad, either while you’re with them or afterward, run.

+ People will test you to see how you react and what you’ll put up with. (There’s nothing wrong with this; we all do it automatically.) These tests are often tiny.

For instance, something trivial goes wrong and your date gets angry. How do you respond?

If you apologize profusely, a leech now knows that (a) you will put up with their inappropriate behavior, and (b) they can use anger to manipulate you. If you poke gentle fun at your date for getting mad over something so small, you show them you have good boundaries and don’t respect or reward bad behavior. Good boundaries repel leeches and encourage the people around you to treat you well.

+ Notice behaviors and attitudes that repeat. These are likely to be habitual. If a person’s repeating behaviors are good, if they help you and other people, date that person. If a person’s repeating behaviors are mean, destructive, or inconsiderate, beware!

+ Assume tiny repeating behaviors at the beginning signal big repeating behaviors later on. If your date is inconsiderate on the first or second date, imagine how much worse they’ll behave after they get to know you better and take you for granted! How will a person like that treat you during a crisis or disagreement, or when they’re in a bad mood?

+ People will usually keep doing what they already do. Someone who cheated in past relationships will cheat on you. Someone who blames previous partners for relationship problems will blame you when things go wrong. The more chronic a behavior, the sooner you are likely to become its target.

Evaluate with compassion and dispassion

Remember, everyone (including you) has some weaknesses and problem behaviors.

When evaluating a potential friend or mate, notice how many problem behaviors they do, to whom, how often and for how long, in how many contexts, and how problematically. There’s a huge difference between someone who occasionally gets angry and cusses, vs. someone who flies into a rage over every problem, disagreement, or setback.

Be particularly wary of a group of related problematic behaviors, such as several ways of blaming, being rude, bullying, or undermining. One bad breakup in a person’s past doesn’t necessarily signal trouble, whereas bad breakups with most or all of their previous partners is definitely a red flag.

Extrapolate from what you observe. If you imagine your date doing the same behaviors you’ve observed more often and more extremely in the future, will that be tolerable?

Be particularly wary of behaviors that violate your core values. If you highly value honesty, and your date lies, their tendency to lie is probably going to be a problem for you, even if it wouldn’t bother someone else.

On the other hand, behaviors and situational factors that don’t affect you may not be red flags for you, even if they’re listed in this article. Someone who is chronically out of work, lives with their parents, or is addicted to video games might be lousy to marry, but great fun to date. If both of you just want to date, this person’s situation isn’t a problem.

Part 5: Problem behaviors

A list of all possible red-flag behaviors would be ridiculously long. Instead, I’m going to give you some basic categories of problem behaviors, with variations and examples. The categories are arbitrary; their main purpose is to help you remember what to look, listen, and feel for when you interact with someone. (If you think of a better way to organize this material, please email me.)

Think of each category as a continuum of behaviors, rather than either/or. Someone who complains for 2 minutes and then proactively fixes their problem is probably not a problem person. Someone who whines endlessly about their whole life while taking no action to change it is an emotional leech. How much and how often will their behavior affect you?



These behaviors cause direct harm — and are often intended to.

– Destructive leeches hurt and harm others. It doesn’t really matter why these people cause harm. Ignore their great reasons, excuses, and justifications for their actions, and their (real or pretended) good intent. The important thing is that these people make life worse.

– Destructive leeches gradually escalate bad behavior. Their first infractions are “too small to make a fuss about,” especially since the leech will make a big deal over how dumb you are for “overreacting.” Then the problems get bigger. And bigger.

– Avoid people who manufacture reasons to make you wrong, or who judge, invalidate, or denigrate you.

Someone who claims “You are a bad person” (or “a bad partner”) and still wants to date you is probably a leech trying to intimidate you. If you were really so bad, a good partner wouldn’t want to date you. Although if they’re kind, they might ask if you’d like some pointers to help you improve.

(A favorite variant in the kinky dating scene is for the leech to claim, “You are a bad submissive/Dominant.” Then the leech pretends they are doing you a huge favor by playing with you at all. Again, if you were really that terrible, a decent person wouldn’t want to play with you.)

A leech wants to make you feel inadequate so you’ll allow them to manipulate you. Invalidation helps them do this. A healthy partner who really thinks you are a bad person will leave. Duh.

– Avoid people who insult you or make hurtful fun of you, especially in front of others. Many leeches say insulting and/or hurtful things. If you object, they attack you for being “too sensitive” or for “taking jokes too seriously.”

– Beware “frame wars” that make you wrong. Reframing what happens in a negative way is a favorite manipulation tactic of sociopaths and other destructive leeches. Example: You do something innocent; they say, “You did that to hurt me.”

Be especially wary when someone blames you for behavior they are doing themselves. If they do something to break trust, they’ll accuse you of acting untrustworthy. If they act passive-aggressive, they’ll say your behaviors are passive-aggressive. They’ll even blame your actions for causing them to behave badly.

Accusatory reframing distracts your attention away from what the leech did by getting you to question yourself and/or putting you on the defensive. You think or say, “But I didn’t break my promise! My action wasn’t passive-aggressive! I didn’t mean harm when I did that!” While you are questioning, doubting, justifying, or defending yourself, the leech’s bad behavior continues or worsens.

– Avoid people who attack you for having reasonable responses to their unreasonable behavior. Examples:

  • The leech does something dangerous or scary, then attacks you for having “fear issues.”
  • The leech asks for information, which you give them. They get upset about what you told them. The next time they ask for information, you reasonably hesitate to give it to them because of their previous negative response. Then they accuse you of acting “untrustworthy.”

– Beware trash talk. Destructive leeches often reveal their destructiveness by admitting it.

  • The leech says terrible things about their previous partners.
  • The leech consistently says all men/women are “idiots,” “psychos,” “only out for what they can get,” etc.
  • The leech brags about hurting pets, people, or their ex.

– Beware mean-spirited and cruel behavior. An emotional leech will justify even outrageously cruel treatment of others with claims that the recipient “earned,” “deserves,” or “asked for” it. Consider:

  • What does this person’s treatment of others tell you about how much they care about other people’s welfare, and about fairness?
  • How long does the person’s behavior last? If a person gets verbally abusive for 2 minutes, calms down, and apologizes, that’s not too bad. Lots of normal, healthy people do that occasionally. A leech who gets vindictive and verbally abusive may stay that way for hours, months, or years.
  • How often does the behavior recur?
  • How extreme is the behavior? Is it emotionally damaging? Physically dangerous? Does it cause long-term damage to your relationship?
  • Who does the person attack? Peers directly involved in disputes with them (unwise, perhaps, but justifiable)? Innocent bystanders? People who would have trouble defending themselves, such as children or employees? (A leech who attacks much weaker people is likely to attack you when you’re weak — at the very time you most need help.)
  • What will it be like when you are the target? If you spend enough time with anyone, at some point you will almost certainly become the target of that person’s negative and emotionally triggered behavior. Assume it will happen, and decide now whether it’s something you want to deal with.

– Be cautious of low-trust people. Sociopaths and control freaks may interpret your innocent acts as evidence you are doing something untrustworthy. What you actually did is irrelevant — they’ll keep twisting their interpretations of your actions to make you wrong. They do this to put you on the defensive and control you, and to justify their own bad behavior.

Then there are the people whose bad experiences have taught them not to trust. If their distrust is situational — if they can trust some people, and that trust lasts over time and through difficulties — they are likely to be able to trust you. Do pay attention to how they respond in situation where they could interpret your behavior as untrustworthy. For some people, the possibility of betrayal triggers an emotional meltdown or nasty retaliation. Other people investigate the facts and respond appropriately.

Some people from very low-trust backgrounds such as abusive homes tend to distrust everybody. Consciously or subconsciously, they anticipate mistreatment and betrayal. Since it’s human nature to find evidence that supports one’s beliefs (and ignore evidence that counteracts them), a person that distrustful will tend to interpret your innocent acts as evidence of untrustworthiness.

Strongly distrustful people usually lack the filters to detect and reject other untrustworthy people, so they keep having bad experiences. These provide more evidence that “people are untrustworthy.”

To defend themselves from people they think they can’t trust (such as you), very low-trust people tend to act untrustworthy. Interpreting your innocent acts as harmful, they will “hit you back first.” They hide information, snoop, interrogate you, attempt to control you, get jealous, etc. Then they use your natural responses to being treated that way (such as withholding information) as evidence you really aren’t trustworthy.

Since people crave love and trust, low-trust people often get it via a process called splitting. A healthy person notices both the wonderful and the problematic traits of their loved ones. In splitting, the loved one gets alternately perceived and treated as either all good or all bad.

In order to trust and feel close to another person, a low-trust person idealizes their mate, ignoring or suppressing evidence that their mate is human and fallible. This often masquerades as being too trusting, since the only way the low-trust person can can let someone get close to them is to drop all (or almost all) of their boundaries. Everything seems wonderful… until the low-trust person’s distrust gets triggered. At this point they switch to rejecting and demonizing their former loved one. They may switch back and forth repeatedly (common with borderline personality disorder), or they might flip from trust to distrust and stay there permanently. (I discuss splitting more in the “Inconsistent” section.)

Investigate past abuse. When someone gets abused, they also learn to abuse. They might abuse others, themselves, or both. Or they might be fine, so check.

The more vehemently anti-abuse someone is, the more likely that if they abuse others they either won’t notice, or will twist their perceptions so they can feel justified about treating others that way.

Since abuse patterns are learned, they can be unlearned. However, a lot of emotional leeches falsely claim to have “resolved” or be “working on” past issues, so proceed cautiously. Get to know the person, and evaluate based on their behaviors rather than what they say about themselves.

– Avoid people who discourage you from learning from other sources. This is especially problematic if the person claims to be an authority on an activity you are unfamiliar with (whether dating, starting a business, polyamory, or bondage play), which you are either already doing or plan to do with that person.

Letting someone else set the rules (such as what constitutes “proper” protocol or “real” polyamory) when you don’t know other options is asking for trouble. A leech will claim that what they want is the “right” or “only” way to do things, whether or not it works for you. If you’re doing it their way and you’re unhappy, find other sources of information now!

– Be cautious about people who lack friends. A lot of them are simply shy, or lack social confidence or skills, and these people can make great friends and partners. However, lack of friends is also characteristic of certain leeches. Someone who knows a lot of people but isn’t friends with any of them, and who speaks ill of others, is probably a leech. Also watch out for people who had friends and romantic relationships in the past, but are no longer on good terms with those people. You will be next.

– Beware people who socially isolate you. This control technique makes it harder for you to get support from others, less likely to get outside points of view that can help you notice bad leech behaviors, and makes you more dependent on the leech. You are thus less likely to challenge them or leave, even when that’s appropriate.

Leech tactics for isolating others include:

  • Objecting to you spending time with friends and family.
  • Misbehaving or retaliating when you contact others.
  • Discouraging you from talking about the leech to anyone else.

– Leeches use social networks to harm others. They gossip. They trash-talk. They try to wreck others’ reputations. Or they intimidate you by claiming that your actions will wreck your (or their) social reputation.


People who don’t take responsibility for their own lives tend to make bad decisions. They don’t learn from their mistakes. They blame others when things go wrong. They may expect you to rescue or take care of them, or blame you whenever their life isn’t perfect.

– Avoid victims and blamers. Victims and blamers believe that they are not responsible for what happens, and someone else is. When something goes wrong in your relationship with this problem person, they will blame you and/or do a “poor me” and expect you to fix the problem — even if they caused it!

Since these problem people mainly focus on who’s at fault rather than what they can do, they tend to act ineffectively and re-create the same problems over and over. This makes them major trouble magnets.

To detect this kind of person, pay attention to how your date represents past mistakes and current problems. Who is responsible?

  • If your date claims they haven’t made any mistakes, they either don’t pay attention, or they avoid responsibility for their mistakes. Either makes them dangerous.
  • If your date claims that other people caused most or all of their problems, or they attempt to justify their own actions even when what they did caused disasters, beware.
  • Claiming that other people “made” them do bad things — or blaming you for their bad behavior (“I only punched you because you made me so angry”) is a major sign of trouble.
  • Healthy people own their mistakes, figure out what they can do differently to avoid repeats, then take action.

“Khai” writes:

“If someone’s career, marriage, investments, family, education and/or health are in poor shape, and s/he says the ‘reasons’ have nothing to do with their personal failings or poor choices but are: prejudice (specific or general), crazy spouse, government, scam artist, bad boss, quack doctor, etc., this is a sure sign of a person who will blame you for what goes wrong next.”

– Avoid complainers and critics, suggests “maidforcouple”. Some just drain you by endlessly complaining and finding fault. Others ask for help, then find reasons to reject (and perhaps belittle) all your suggestions. Some obsessively tell you what’s wrong with your ideas, hopes, dreams, ambitions, actions, friends, social life, career, behaviors. Others find reasons why any idea, course of action, or solution won’t work. They’ll overlook 99 things that worked, or that you did right, to focus on the one that failed.

Many complainers and critics have terrible lives, yet they still expect you to listen to their stories and accept their criticisms and advice. Other warning signs: Lack of constructive suggestions and actions, failure to notice and reward desired behavior and outcomes.

– Your date is responsible for managing their emotions — you shouldn’t be. Perhaps you find yourself doing a lot to help your date manage or defuse anger. Or to comfort or cheer them. Or you protect them from real life, and the emotional consequences of their actions. In all these cases you’re doing work that they as adults should do for themselves. They are responsible for managing their emotions. If they don’t seem aware of this, beware. If they assume or demand that you manage or control their emotions, run.

– Beware addictions and eating disorders, especially if the person isn’t getting treatment or actively doing things to fix the problem that you can observe for yourself. Make sure they take responsibility for their own problems and behaviors, and don’t put others at risk with behaviors such as drunk driving. (A person who thinks it’s okay to risk other people’s safety on the road by driving drunk might decide it’s okay to risk your safety during sex or kink play.)

– Be cautious about age regression. A “baby doll” may be cute in the bedroom, but a person who is childlike in real life probably has serious boundary, competency, and responsibility issues. You might be tempted to rescue this person, but then they’ll just glom onto you and make you responsible for their life… while continuing the behaviors that got them in trouble in the first place.

– Be cautious about excessive dependency. Someone who calls their mother every day, still lives with mom and dad after age 30 (especially if this is a permanent arrangement), has a long history of joblessness and mooching off others, or makes dumb decisions (such as financial irresponsibility) and expects to be rescued, is likely to have some pretty significant dependency/responsibility or competency issues. Consider whether the person’s behaviors are likely to affect you, and if so, how. (A problem that doesn’t affect you may not be an issue.)

Excessive dependency may also be a sign of shyness or poor social skills. These are often good people who are socially delayed. They may be figuring out in their 30s or 40s what most people learned as teens. With a little encouragement, many can make good (and often very loyal) partners.

– Beware people who want lasting commitment too fast. Someone who immediately wants to move in with you, get married, or have kids might be irresponsibly unrealistic (and living in a fantasy that they probably won’t handle well once real life happens). Or they might be trying to manipulate you. (Sociopaths often use this tactic.) Certain types of emotional leeches want attention and stimulation now, and will try to rush the relationship to get their “fix.”

Be particularly wary of this person if they don’t have a job, they ask for money or “loans,” or they try to pressure you to decide immediately. (“If you don’t love me enough to commit now, I’ll leave!”) A bad decision now could leave you with a deadbeat spouse, a child to raise alone, or both. Think of how you will respond if your and their starry-eyed best-case fantasies don’t work out, and protect yourself accordingly.

– Be wary of habitually unclear and indirect communication. Seriously unclear communication is a weapon of the destructive leech. Destructive sociopaths love to manipulate people by claiming that you “should have known” that their deliberately unclear/ambiguous communication meant something other than however you interpreted it. Next time, the correct answer changes and they make you wrong again.

Most unclear communication isn’t malicious. Often it’s a sign of past abuse. (In this case, the person may have other abuse issues — check.) An unclear communicator may be afraid or unable to directly and clearly communicate their needs and wants. That’s not necessarily a big problem. But the leechier versions expect you to mind-read and know what they meant to communicate. They will punish you (often passive-aggressively) for not responding as they wish.

Unclear communication is also common in people who have poor social skills.

Some poor communicators have Asperger syndrome, a neurological condition that makes it difficult for the person to read body language, emotions, and social cues. Aspies often seem aloof not because they are indifferent to others’ feelings, but because they are unaware of them. Many Aspies have trouble imagining another person’s point of view. They might make the mistake of assuming their partner knows things that only they themselves know. My personal experience is that Aspies can make wonderful partners if you are willing to communicate very clearly and directly.

– Someone “too good to be true” probably is. Humans are hardwired to respond to something-for-nothing deals. Just because you want someone to be your ideal mate doesn’t make them one. It’s your responsibility to keep your own expectations realistic, and be suspicious of that “too good” partner.

“Khai” wrote,

“Leeches are often very skilled at appearing to be normal, friendly people in their casual relationships. Many people see them as ‘great guys’ (or gals). While you should be paying attention to how they treat other people, please realize they may be superficially nice to social acquaintances. This is one of the things that enables them to manipulate people in close relationships…. And, if s/he is trashing all his/her former partners to you, you can be sure s/he is trashing you to someone else.”

A favorite manipulative leech trick is to pretend to be very similar to you — similar past experiences, shared interests and values. They build rapport by pointing out even trivial similarities. These leeches may lie about big stuff to make themselves seem more like you. If you talk about your ideal mate and your date morphs to fit, proceed with caution.

Virtually every sociopath (and lots of narcissists) get described as “charming.” If someone is giving you lots of attention, affection, and approval before you’ve had a chance to earn it, you might have found your ideal mate… but it’s more likely you’ve found a leech. This person might be trying to manipulate you… or they might relate to others using the “splitting” pattern described in the section below.


Everyone is inconsistent some of the time. However, severe inconsistency nearly always signals significant problems.

– Avoid sequential inconsistency. If a person

  • acts warm one minute and cold the next
  • keeps changing their mind about whether they want to be in a relationship with you or not
  • claimed X was true this morning but now says X is false
  • changes their stories about what happened (especially in ways that justify their own actions or makes you wrong)

then you can’t depend on them. (This inconsistency is one of the things that can make people with personality disorders seem very exciting… but it will cost you.)

Note: People with certain personality disorders that cause extreme sequential inconsistency may at times completely lack the resources to say no. (The kinky version is inability or unwillingness to safeword during a scene.) If you do something the person doesn’t like but didn’t say no to, they may later believe (and publicly claim) that you raped or abused them. If a person acts inconsistent in everyday life, assume this could cause problems if you two get intimate.

– Avoid idealization/demonization (splitting), a type of inconsistency where your date regards you, and other people they make emotional attachments to, as alternately wonderful or terrible. You can do no wrong and they forgive you anything — until you do something they do judge wrong, at which point your date goes ballistic, blows the incident way out of proportion, and blames you.

This person’s previous mate was an angel or a monster, depending on which conversation they’re in. Their strongest split is often that they are blameless for whatever went wrong, no matter how much they participated in the situation, while the other person is 100% responsible (and a rotten slime ball). Or, alternately, they blame themselves for everything, while the other person is blameless.

Someone who splits may treat you like royalty until their switch flips the other way; then they feel justified doing all kinds of nastiness to someone as horrible as you. Splitting is very difficult to deal with, worse if you’re the one doing it. Virtually everyone with certain hard-to-deal-with personality disorders splits, especially in their close relationships.


Entitled people think they do or should own, control, or have access to what belongs to other people. Entitlement plus victimization is a particularly unpleasant combination. “Poor me! You should help/accommodate me because I’m a victim. Ooh, you didn’t help me enough! You’re a bad person!”

– Beware of anyone demonstrating they feel entitled to your stuff, body, time, attention, love, etc. Rapists, abusers, con artists, and thieves feel entitled to take what they want. Mooches, attention sluts, and professional victims feel entitled to your time, attention, and support. Strongly entitled people are nearly always bad news. The stronger their sense entitlement, the worse the problems they cause are likely to be.

– Notice how the person treats other people. In particular, notice how much they actually notice other people as real, separate individuals apart from themselves. How kindly and appropriately do they treat others? To what degree do they notice and respond when other people give them feedback that what they’re doing is inappropriate or unwelcome?

Certain types of leeches represent other people as basically copies of themselves. If someone develops a life-threatening illness at dinner, the leech may get angry at the ill person for disrupting the meal. Or because they want attention, they expect everyone else to want to give it to them.

The more narcissistic the person, the more their life and conversation are all about them: how great they are, how others don’t appreciate them enough, what they feel or need — often with little or no consideration of what other people feel or need.

– Leeches have unreasonable expectations that they expect you to live up to. If you don’t, you will be punished!

– Notice whose rules and standards apply to whom. A person generally has a default setting about whether My, Your, or No Rules apply to themselves… and whether My, Your, or No Rules apply to other people, including you. Common patterns:

Rules for me Rules for you Leads to:
My Rules Your Rules common among healthy people
Your Rules Your Rules doormats
No or My Rules My Rules controlling
No Rules My Rules controlling & destructive sociopaths
No Rules No Rules destructive sociopaths; tolerate and attracts other nasty people

Note: Rules patterns are somewhat contextual. Often someone who uses Your Rules for You in other situations uses My Rules For You about fidelity, or when dealing with their children.

– Guilt trips. Commonly leeches will tell you “don’t be selfish” when they want to be selfish and take what you have. Or when you set healthy, appropriate boundaries that get in the leech’s way.

– Leeches use favors to manipulate others, and expect far more back than they give.

  • The leech gives you a small gift, or does you a tiny/easy favor, then expects/demands a huge favor, major concession, or lots of praise and attention in return. Example: They bring you a take-out meal, then expect you to spend all day helping them move.
  • The leech does you a “favor” that you didn’t ask for or want, then expects/demands thanks, gratitude, concessions, or favors in return. Example: They say “I left the whole weekend open for you” when you had other plans. In my experience, many rescuers and enablers have this pattern. Be particularly wary of attempts to financially obligate you, since if you break up the leech may take you to court to get back the car or ring they gave you, or the money they spent to pay off your student loan.
  • The leech spends money to hook you, or gives you lots of attention, sex, etc. Once you commit (move in together, get married) their generosity evaporates.
  • The leech claims they will give you attention, sex, money, or love after you do something they want. Realistically, if they’re not doing it now, they’ll have even less motivation after you give in.

– Beware rescuing. Anyone who rewards you for HAVING problems IS a problem. For your own sake, quit indulging rescuers and insist that they give you attention and reward/enable your behavior when you succeed, not when you fail.

If you are a rescuer, stop rewarding failure and start rewarding success. You will get rid of the professional victims that sap your energy, and start helping good people who deserve your aid.


“cpk” points out that while things like destructiveness and entitlement are always bad, incompetence is more of a “how much are you willing to put up with?” question. Remember, even the most skilled lovers and relationship partners start as newbies.

– Beware confidence that outstrips competence. Incompetent people often think they are more skilled than average, so use your judgment, not theirs. Most overconfident people are just clueless, but some are leeches seeking to impress others by inflating their skill and expertise.

– Assume your date’s repeated emotions are probably habitual. Chronically unhappy people usually stay unhappy. Angry people tend to get angry again… and if they don’t have a reason for anger, they’ll create one. If you want a happy partner, pick someone who’s happy now.

– Beware people who don’t respond to feedback. Even when they are merely clueless, these folks inevitably cause problems for the people around them. Examples:

  • The person doesn’t learn from their own mistakes.
  • The person doesn’t learn about you from your repeated behaviors.
  • The person doesn’t respond to reasonable requests. Or they do the opposite of what you request — behavior common to malicious, destructive, and passive-aggressive people. (If a lot people don’t respond well to your reasonable requests the problem might be the people you pick, your communication skills, or what you consider “reasonable.” In this case, change your behavior and see if that reduces the problem.)

– Beware poor boundaries. The opposite of entitlement is people who don’t know what they want, can’t ask for it if they do know, or can’t say no when they should. Many abuse victims fall into this category. Some who normally do have safe limits age-regress when they feel threatened — perhaps to the point where the can’t say no or even talk. This could cause a problem during or after sex (or kink play), since such a person could potentially accuse people with whom they didn’t set limits of mistreating, abusing, or raping them.

– Beware poor people filters. Even if they mean well, a person with lousy filters could bring spiteful, destructive people into your life.

– Leeches claim skills and qualities they don’t demonstrate. So do clueless and incompetent people. If someone claims to be skilled at something, and you observe shoddy work, beware. Ditto if they claim to have great relationship skills, then complain about the horrible things done to them by past lovers. (Remember, they picked those people, and helped create the interactions they complain about.) Sociopaths will lie about their skills, reputation, and past in order to impress and manipulate you.

Part 6: What makes people vulnerable to leeches?

What makes people high risk for getting abused? The same issues that make leeches such problems!


– Negative self-talk. If you verbally abuse and trash-talk yourself, you may not even notice someone doing the same thing from outside. If you treat yourself like a friend, it will be obvious when other people treat you badly.

– Past abuse. Someone who has experienced past abuse, especially in childhood, may regard abuse as normal and not notice inappropriate behavior. Leech behaviors may even seem comfortable or attractive.

– Leech tendencies. If you’re doing it, you lack the filters to stop it, so you’re more likely to be a victim of it.

Responsibility, victimhood issues

– Low self-esteem. Someone who thinks poorly of themselves, and/or idealizes others as “above” them, is much more likely to accept abuse as normal, or take abuse in order to gain approval.

– Insecurity. If someone says something negative or critical about you or your behavior, or claims that X happened when you think Y happened, do you (1) ignore them, because what they said can’t possibility be true, (2) question and doubt everything about yourself, or (3) treat what they said as possibly useful information, check for yourself what you think it’s true, then respond appropriately to what you find? Only option 3 makes you leech-resistant.

– Tendency to avoid responsibility by any means: blaming, passivity, dependence, wishful thinking, etc. Leeches utilize responsibility-avoidance as a way to manipulate people.

– Getting involved or seeking commitment too fast. This is one of the easiest ways to get zapped.

Nice Person Syndrome. Someone who needs to please others, focuses on filling other people’s needs, tends to rescue, uses indirect communication… this is an emotional leech’s dream.

– Tendency to avoid conflict. Leeches love this, because they can use conflict and the threat of conflict to control their victims.

– Drama. If you need or want it, you’re more vulnerable to people who create it. You’re also more likely to attract people with poor boundaries who are willing to tolerate it.

– Rescuer tendencies. Rescuing is not helping. Someone who helps other people does it by building people’s strengths, encouraging people’s successes, and setting good boundaries (such as not proffering more help if their first help gets rejected). They don’t reward weaknesses or failures. Their satisfaction comes from doing things that encourage real, tangible progress.

Someone who rescues acts in ways that reward the other person’s lacks and weaknesses — for instance, by giving them lots of attention for having problems. The rescuer has poor boundaries, and keeps trying to give even when their “help” gets ignored or abused. (A rescuer might continue to give “food money” to someone who spends it on drugs.)

A rescuer thinks they earn emotional points for attempting to help, even if their rescue efforts ultimately encourage weakness or cause harm. Thus they have incentive to keep your problems happening so they can keep “helping” you.

– Wishful thinking. Hoping that someone will treat you better in the future won’t make it happen. Nor will hoping that the other person will change. Realistic people assume that people are most likely to do in the future what they do now. A date who is abusive or irresponsible probably won’t change. (And even if they do, it’ll be because they decide to, not because you try to change them.)

Asher points out that someone who fulfills your wilder fantasies “can be really hot, at first, because let’s face it — none of us fantasize about negotiations and limits.” But in real life, someone who doesn’t negotiate and doesn’t respect limits can be destructive and dangerous.

– Scarcity mentality. There are nearly 7 billion people on this planet, billions of whom have Internet access. No matter who you are, there are partners for you. Especially if you do what’s needed to make yourself a good partner.

Leeches prey on your insecurities by making it seem like if you don’t date them, do what they want, and become who they want you to be, you will be left alone and friendless, and no one will ever date you again. Or that you’ll never find a better partner.

Once you understand that the world is full of people looking for someone like you, once you understand that turning down the leech in front of you will increase your chances of finding good partners in the future, and once you have a great life and don’t need a date this month or this minute, leeches can’t hook you with scarcity or fear.


– Inconsistency. Inconsistency makes you much less likely to spot inconsistent leeches, and much more likely to do leech-like behaviors yourself. Because this behavior usually happens unconsciously, ask people you know how consistent/inconsistent you seem to them. You might not realize what you’re doing.

– Idealization/demonization and splitting. If you tend to regard other people as either terrible or wonderful, and particularly if you alternately regard loved ones as wonderful and awful, you are extremely vulnerable to leeches. Leeches — especially the charming kinds — excel at triggering idealization. They seem wonderful, you think they are wonderful and ignore evidence to the contrary, and then things go drastically, horribly wrong.

Poor boundaries

– Poor boundaries. Having good boundaries is a necessary skill for staying safe and having great relationships. If you have trouble saying no or setting boundaries, start small with safe topics and practice until you get good.

– Low expectations. Someone who expects poor treatment will probably put up with it. Someone who expects to be treated with care and respect will probably reject poor treatment immediately. This will quickly eliminate most leeches.

– Dysfunctional rules about who can do what — see explanation of rules in the discussion of rules above. To oversimplify (and YMMV):

  • My Rules For You = wonderful leader, boss, dominant relationship partner… or asshole, depending on what rules you use, how you apply them, and how consensually you relate.
  • No Rules for You = vulnerable to and attracts users, abusers, and clueless trouble magnets.
  • Your Rules For Me = wonderfully compliant submissive partner; vulnerable to users and abusers if you use this strategy outside the bedroom.
  • No Rules For Me = you might not mean to hurt anybody, but it’s almost inevitable that people end up getting hurt anyway.

– Low trust. If your trust levels are low, you will tend to act in ways that trigger less trustworthy behaviors in others — such as acting suspicious and controlling. You’re also much more likely to love by (temporarily) dropping your boundaries and idealizing your mate — making you a magnet for leeches.


– Poor relationship track record. If you have a history of bad relationships, wake up! What those people all have in common is… you! You picked them, you stayed with them, you contributed to the problems in some way or those problems wouldn’t keep recurring.

Stop blaming other people, which doesn’t fix anything. Stop doing more of what you did before, harder — you already proved that doesn’t work. Instead, take your track record as evidence that your relationship skills stink, and fix them.

Some good dating and relationship coaches on the Internet have helpful free email newsletters to get you started. My personal favorite is Mirabelle Summers at (You’ll find more links in the Resources section.)

– Poor social skills. People with lousy social skills attract fewer prospects and partners. They are more likely to feel desperate, and lower their expectations and standards so they can get partners. These factors make them more vulnerable to leeches, and more likely to attract them.

When you improve your social skills and become a better partner, you attract more and better partners. With plenty of good choices, you won’t feel tempted to settle for a leech. (The free newsletters mentioned in the previous bullet point can help you improve your social skills and attract more people to you.)

– Lack of social network and support. The more isolated someone is, the easier they are to abuse.

– Lacking a thriving life of your own. If you “need” a partner to feel good, a leech can use that to manipulate you. If your life is already great, then if the leech causes problems, you can go back to your other activities, friends, and partners and your quality of life will improve.

Part 7: How to close gaps in your “spam filters”

How do you handle those times when you do get burned, or a history of getting burned repeatedly, to minimize the likelihood you’ll get burned in the future?

I tune my own “spam filters” by analyzing relationships for clues about what I did that caused problems, helped me avoid them, or led to a great relationship or interaction. Here’s how I do it.

How to analyze problems and failures

When you’re analyzing an interaction or relationship that went wrong, or a problem that developed with someone, ask yourself two questions:

  1. “What were the earliest warning signs which, if I had known they were warning signs, would have let me know this person would be a problem for me?” These are often fairly subtle — or at least they’re subtle to you, or you would have noticed them. Sometimes the person did or revealed something that was a blatant sign of trouble to come, but because you didn’t know it signaled trouble, it didn’t help you.
  2. “What did I do that contributed to the problem?” Sometimes all you did was not recognize a problem right away. More often, you did (or failed to do) something that you can change to prevent problems in the future. For instance, you ignored your gut feelings, didn’t make your boundaries clear, or kept seeing the leech even after they violated your boundaries or standards.

Doing this analysis will teach you what not to do in the future, so you can avoid problems.

How to analyze successes and triumphs

Make sure you also analyze interactions and relationships that go well. These will teach you what to do, what kinds of people to look for, and how to know when you find a good one. The analysis is very similar. Ask yourself:

  1. “What were the earliest signs which, if I had known they were signs, would have told me this person would be good or great to interact with?” Again, these are often subtle, or things you tend to not notice.
  2. “What did I do that contributed to this success?”

Success can be tricky to analyze. It’s easy to overlook success factors, especially if they’re subtle. It’s also easy to attribute success to factors A and B when actually factors C and D made it happen. So once you have figured out what you think helped you succeed, try doing more of it and see whether it works. Also notice what results you get when you don’t do it.

By adjusting your filters and behaviors, you will improve your track record and results. Make this analysis a habit, and you can improve your results a lot.

Part 8: How to pick good people

These are the opposite of the leech factors above. Date people who are constructive, responsible, consistent, have good boundaries, and are competent.

Prefer constructive people

+ Date people who raise your quality of life. If your date is exciting, but causes a bunch of problems in your life, pay attention; they are probably bad news. If your date is angrier, more critical, more demanding, ruder, more judgmental than friends you respect and like to spend time with, they’re probably a bad bet. Someone who treats you well and leaves you feeling grounded and good about yourself is a much better mate candidate.

People who are addicted to adrenaline and excitement may find leeches attractive because of the drama they create. Non-leeches may seem “boring” by comparison. Keep reminding yourself of the high price you pay for dating leeches until they seem less attractive, and date good people who like activities you find exciting.

+ Healthy partners make good things happen in your life. Leeches make bad things happen.

+ Healthy partners think win-win. They want you to succeed, and celebrate your triumphs. Often leeches perceive you winning as them losing — so they’ll try to disempower you.

+ Healthy partners build you up so you can do more. Leeches tear you down so they can use you.

If you’re a newbie and a prospective partner treats you with kindness, reassurance, and encouragement — and especially if they encourage you to meet and network with others, ask questions, and set firm boundaries — you’re probably in good hands. If a prospective partner plays on your insecurities and judges and criticizes you — especially if they discourage questions and networking — find someone else.

+ Healthy partners help you become stronger and more capable, in real life as well as the bedroom. They expand your world. Leeches make you weaker and contract your world. (Becoming willing to accept more abuse, and able to endure it, does not constitute “getting stronger.”)

+ Healthy people are trustworthy and trusting, but not unreasonably trusting. (Too much trust indicates poor boundaries or splitting.)

+ Healthy people are constructive. Leeches are destructive. When you think about how your date talks about other people, how they treat others, how they treat you, whether they tend to make situations and relationships better or worse, whether they connect or separate people… how does it all add up?

Prefer responsible people

+ A healthy person has good boundaries and takes appropriate responsibility for themselves, their behaviors, and the outcomes they produce. The healthier the person, the more they will own what they do and its consequences, and the less they will blame. Healthy people also recognize what they’re not responsible for.

Prefer consistent people

+ Healthy people are consistent. If they tell you X today, they will tell you X tomorrow. This means you can predict their behavior. Predictability may seem less exciting than leech mayhem and drama, but makes for a much healthier relationship.

Prefer people with good boundaries

+ A healthy person can and will say no. Test prospective partners with something trivial, and see how they respond. Someone who can’t or won’t say no may might blame you later for not mind-reading during sex (or during a kink scene).

+ A healthy person will accept and respect a no from you. A leech will not, or will keep pushing, pushing, pushing…

+ Healthy people are good at avoiding problem people. Over many years, I have noticed a few differences between individuals with good “spam filters” for spotting problem people, and those without:

1. Competent people evaluators notice how they feel around the other person, and get closer or withdraw in response. This gets them away from people who treat them poorly, and closer to people who treat them well.

Ineffective people evaluators have learned to ignore, dismiss, or devalue certain information, including problem behaviors in others and problematic emotional responses in themselves. Even when they do notice these things, they tend to get upset and complain, but not move away. That sends the problem person the nonverbal message that it is acceptable to continue their problem behavior.

2. Competent people-evaluators extrapolate what people are likely to do, based on their observed behaviors, and respond to the extrapolation. To them, someone’s minor act of bullying suggests later bullying, probably expanded in range and intensity, so the evaluator withdraws some, perhaps a lot.

Ineffective people-evaluators tend to ignore small problems until they get big. They treat each instance of a behavior as unique, rather than as part of a pattern. Only when they have many examples of problem behavior, and those behaviors are extreme or having really bad effects, do they realize they have a serious problem.

In contrast, competent people-evaluators ask “What pattern is behavior X part of?” This enables them to distinguish negative behaviors that signal a good person’s stress and frustration from genuine ill will, and intermittent willingness to harm others from consistently loving behavior.

A person who practices these skills and gets good at them will learn who they should avoid and how to do it.

Prefer competent people

+ Date people you feel good around. Avoid people you feel bad around. Really bad matches can leave you feeling off-balance or insecure, questioning your perceptions and standards, or repeatedly feeling like you might be wrong or a bad person. Good people ground you. The best bring out the best in you.

+ Make sure your partner wants the same kind of relationship you do. Even a fantastic partner may cause problems and drama if one of you wants to be monogamous, get married, or have kids, and the other doesn’t or can’t. A good match here will prevent later struggles and problems.

+ Healthy people have positive, reasonable self-esteem. Many problem partners have extremely low self-esteem, and will do almost anything to compensate — including behaviors that get them in trouble, which they then blame on other people. Other problem people have unreasonably high opinions of themselves. They think they’re an expert, when they’re not. As a result, they do unwise, unsafe stuff and people get hurt — emotionally or physically. Healthy people are confident without being overconfident. They have a realistic idea of their own strengths, weaknesses, and experience level.

+ Healthy people do a good job of managing their emotions. They are emotionally resilient; when they get into bad moods, they don’t stay there. They express emotions such as anger or sadness without blaming others or making them responsible. These folks are often the nice combination of realistic and happy.

+ Great partners encourage the behaviors they want by rewarding them. When you treat them well, they thank you with a smile, a hug, or kind words. You know they want and appreciate what you do, which motivates you to do more, so your relationship just keeps improving.

+ Date people who naturally create the relationship dynamics you want. With these people, relating well isn’t a struggle; it’s easy.

Part 9: You CAN learn to repel leeches

“maidforcouple” and I have both found that with real leeches (as contrasted with constructive people who occasionally do leech behavior), it works better to ease the problem people out of our lives rather than trying to deal with their problem behavior.

When you have good boundaries and enforce them, when you have reasonable expectations and expect other people to have reasonable expectations of you, when you expect good treatment and ditch people who don’t give it to you, when you are a constructive person and surround yourself with constructive people, leeches will run away from you. They want victims, people they can manipulate. You won’t be one.

I know, because I used to be a major leech magnet, and now leeches avoid me. The more I refine my “leech radar,” the fewer problems I have.

Networking and book

Avoiding problem people and finding great ones is a huge topic, and obviously one I can only skim in an article like this. That’s why I am now collecting stories and experiences for a book about how to avoid problem people. Please contribute by emailing me, or post in the comments. (If you post publicly, change identifying details.)

I also welcome your insights and your suggestions for how to improve this material.

Many thanks. Use this well, and spread the word!



1. Emotional leeches are all around us: Three groups of people are particularly likely to cause severe harm. Sociopaths (now called antisocial personality disorder) lack a conscience. Narcissists (narcissistic personality disorder) are so self-centered they may not notice or care about other people’s welfare. Borderlines (borderline personality disorder) are inconsistent, have poor boundaries, and prone to create drama. In the US, prevalence is estimated at 3.6%, 1%, and 1-2% respectively. This is about 6% total, or 1 in 16 people. Jump back to text


Avoiding problem people:

Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry by Albert J. Bernstein. A helpful book for spotting, avoiding, and dealing which emotional leeches. Buy on Amazon

The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. An expert who makes his living protecting celebrities, de Becker reveals how to distinguish threatening but harmless people from genuinely dangerous ones. Buy on Amazon

Red flag list on
Includes some items that are personal preferences, not universal signs of trouble.

Avoiding problem people in the kink (SM, BDSM) scene:

A Field Guide to “Creepy Dom”

Kinky red-flag list:

Changing yourself so you neither abuse nor attract abuse:

Bad Childhood — Good Life: How to Blossom and Thrive in Spite of an Unhappy Childhood by Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Compassionately ruthless analysis of how people who experienced bad childhoods get stuck, and what it takes to get out and create good life. Buy on Amazon

The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing by Beverly Engel. This excellent book even includes special chapters to teach people with narcissistic and borderline personality disorder (who are especially prone to abuse) how to stop abusing. Buy on Amazon

Transforming Your Self: Becoming Who You Want to Be by Steve Andreas. Provides detailed, step-by-step instructions for strengthening the characteristics you like in yourself, and quickly changing the ones you don’t. Buy on Amazon

Free dating tips email newsletters:
Note: I haven’t checked these recently.

For both women and men:

For women:

For men:

As a woman, I found that studying men’s dating tips gave me more understanding of and empathy for dating issues and hardships that men face. This helped me make myself more approachable, which got me more dates. Just be aware that from either gender’s perspective, dating tips for the opposite gender may seem manipulative.

While these materials are mostly aimed at heterosexual daters, they can help anyone learn to be a better relationship partner.


  • You may link to this post. Use this link:
  • You may print this post for yourself, friends, and family.
  • You may print this post for classes and workshops so long as it is complete, unmodified, and includes this notice.
  • You may excerpt up to 1,000 words of this piece in your blog or article if you provide the URL above and a link.
  • Please don’t repost this piece. Instead, link to it at the URL above. That way as I keep updating and improving the article, your readers will always get the newest version.

© 2012 by Libida Morgasm. All rights reserved.

[poll id=”2″]

Like this post? Send your friends and recommend it using the buttons below:



How to avoid problem people — 38 Comments

  1. Thanks for the link, Libida! I haven’t had a chance to fully read this version yet, and I know you’ve updated it from what you posted on Fetlife originally, but I’ll get to it soon, and have already linked to it. It’s too hard to focus to read much of anything at the moment since my father just died, but at first glance, it looks great. Then again, the original certainly was.

    Hope you’re doing well!

  2. @kinkylittlegirl, thanks for your kind words and the book recommendation. I’m always looking for resources that can help people better deal with problem relationships.

  3. This is a wonderful article. Lady Evadne Toki brought it to my attention, and I’m making the link available to everyone I know. It’s so important that we learn enough about the problems of dealing with people that we can treat everyone courteously without getting roped into bad situations — it’s essential for real life, fantasy life, dating, families, you name it.

    Thank you for all the work you’ve done, and for your eloquence in bringing together a wealth of material that everybody needs.

    If that’s a workable thing, I’d love to get to know you better. I’m Lorrett, housemother to the Fantasy Makers, a nice euphemism for the Old Woman in the Shoe. Do you live in the Bay Area? I’d be delighted to show you around the Shoe…if appropriate, please feel free to e-mail me and we’ll plot.


  4. The old woman in the shoe sent this my way,what a wonderful gift I thank you

  5. You’re welcome, Kris, Rita, and Bobbie. I appreciate your feedback and your help spreading the word. It is my hope in providing this information that other people can learn to avoid problem people and relationships without the decades of pain and trouble I went through.

    I’m always looking to improve this article, so if you have suggestions, please let me know either here in the comments, or via the contact form.

  6. This is great! I loved it on Fet and wished that some friends took time to read it there. But will send out the link to everyone I know so they can all read about problem people and how to avoid them, or if they are with them already, get away from them.

  7. Thank you, @WolfVixen! My dream is to get this out to lots of folks, to the point emotional leeches have trouble getting dates except with each other. ;)

  8. Seems that we all know someone like that.

    But how do we recognise these traits within ourselves?

  9. Detecting leechy behavior in other people depends on noticing their behavior and the results they get. You can do the same thing with yourself.

    For instance, you say you value kindness, you believe you do, but do you actually act kind? Do people respond to you as if you’re kind?

    You value good boundaries. Do you actually act like a person with good boundaries? Do you set them? Are you clear about them? (Reality check: “Clear” isn’t YOU thinking you are clear. Clear means other people are clear about your boundaries.) When people transgress your boundaries, do you stop them, immediately and firmly? Or do you find that people are taking advantage of you, maybe repeatedly?

    Once you notice a problem, you can figure out how to start changing your behavior.

    For instance, I used to say the people in my life were important — and they were! Really! But I had the habit of choosing to work on projects instead of interact. I eventually realized I was sending my friends the nonverbal message “You’re not that important to me.” That was NOT building the relationships I wanted. So I started thinking about my choices, rather than always choosing the project. And in fact I found that I could choose to interact first about 80% of the time, and still get most of my work done. This way of doing things is much more in line with my values, and creates better relationships.

    Often people are unconscious about their actual behaviors or its effects. When they do something counter to their values, they zone out and don’t notice. If you’re getting a bunch of feedback and responses from people that seems counter to how you think of yourself, that might be happening.

    My personal favorite way of dealing with that — and of getting my behavior to align with my values — is outlined in Steve Andreas’s book Transforming Your Self: Becoming Who You Want to Be. It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s effective, and the results last. View on Amazon


  10. what a wonderful and exciting DATING TOOL….i agree 100%. I have learned alot about me in the past 2 years and my character defects and can admit them all….someone once said to me at a “meeting” “remember what your mother has taught you” meaning all the morals and values i was brought up with…I am a worthy person and knowing my words properly, i can say what i need and want in LIFE….
    this will be passed on to family and friends…thank you for sharing

  11. Lady Lubyanka kindly allowed me to repost her excellent list from a thread on members-only website:

    Here are some of my red flags for all occasions, I find they go with everything:

    • Repeatedly incongruous speech and behaviour
    • Strongly asserting stuff in the absence of any challenge to it
    • Heated unproductive responses to queries
    • Responding combatively to other people’s self-expressions of personal needs/wants/suffering as if they were an attack
    • Habitually translating personal experiences into universal truths
    • Abdicating responsibility for trivial things

    These normally allow me to keep my time and life free of scary people after only a few moments of conversation.

    This excellent list includes some red flags I missed in my article — but have encountered in real life — so thank you very much, Lady Lubyanka!

  12. Excellent article. I liked the part about testing the person to see if they say no.

    I think there is another step in that, though. How does the person say no? If they do it kindly, confidently, calmly and respectfully, you’ve probably found someone more emotionally healthy than otherwise.

    If they’re defensive and a bit off putting, it might bear more watching.

  13. I agree with Goddess of Java, this is a nice article.

    It is a little bit on the long side, and maybe could have been broken up into a few smaller articles, but it kept my attention, and I read it all!

  14. I find this for the most part to be helpful information. However, I am disappointed that you have chosen to lump in those who are mentally ill into your analysis of emotional leeches. By avoiding “the issue of amateurs diagnosing/labeling others as ‘mentally ill’…” in order to “simply evaluate others in terms of how much trouble they’re likely to cause…” without regard for the reason for their behavior is unconstructive and potentially harmful.

    Mental illness is a MEDICAL illness that many people are unaware that they have. A person with dysthymia (chronic depression), for example, may keep their “bad mood” for several months or years and may have a hard time recovering from a hurtful comment, even when an apology is offered. By definition, a mentally ill person generally lacks the ability to understand on their own that they are mentally ill and may be unable to recognize that they need help from outside sources. Because of this, it is unreasonable to assume that someone who is experiencing an episode will be able to seek help on their own. To blame a mentally ill person for their chemical imbalance is like blaming stroke victim for losing the power to express themselves coherently. Support from friends, family and loved ones is the key to recovery for those with mental illnesses.

    I found that the majority of your article described people who would be able to understand their behavior from an outside perspective if it were presented to them with a reasonable explanation. To those who struggle with episodes of mental illness, reason CANNOT work because their ability to process reason is affected by their mental instability. If a person is exhibiting behavior consistent with mental illness, abandoning them only serves to isolate them further and reinforces their fears and irrational attitude toward others.

    Before snapping to judgment of a person’s potentially harmful behavior, it is important to try to recognize the difference between those suffering from mental instability and reasonable people who are aware of their behavior. For those who are causing unintentional harm to you or others, it is important to try to reason with them to see if they can become self-aware of their harmful behavior and actively modify it over time. If not, you may be dealing with someone who is unable to change their behavior because of the chemical imbalance, and they may need MEDICAL treatment in the form therapy and/or medication.

    If you are a person who is healthy and you find yourself in a position of trust with someone who is not, please try to get them help. By turning to resources in your area, you can understand better what is affecting your loved one. By lumping people with mental illness into a behavioral category as something to simply avoid may make you personally safe in the short term. But in the long term, ignoring or avoiding those who are mentally ill is potentially harmful to them, you, and society as a whole. In my opinion, it is simply unconscionable.

  15. A classic example of the “me normal, you not” mentality used by people who aren’t trained in psychology one bit but have an opinion and want to tell you. Notice how all but one of the comments are praising your article highly? Another tool used by untrained bloggers who want to feel right – it’s called denial.

  16. Pingback: oh the humanity « rehearsalsdepartures

  17. I wanted to take a moment to say that I agree with Shanti and to applaud her for speaking up. This article, while definitely being informative, also ruffled my feathers while I read it. I’m biased of course, seeing as I have several mental illnesses. It felt to me, on occasion, that it was almost saying people with mental illnesses should be avoided if you want to live a happy and emotionally healthy life. So, as Shanti pointed out, should people who have suffered a stroke, or Alzheimer’s, or heck, people with learning disabilities who might lack the communication abilities of the average American adult (say someone with autism) be avoided?

    Don’t get me wrong, generally speaking I understand (I think) what you’re getting at. But I think when you start throwing actual medical conditions into the mix and insinuating without much clarification that people with such conditions should be avoided some caution should be taken.

    One of the top problems people with depression and suicidal ideation face is isolation and a lack of understanding and/or compassion from friends, family, and loved ones. To encourage your readers to contribute to this is medically and socially irresponsible in my opinion.

    I’m not saying people are made of stone and that we should put up with anything and everything from our partners/family/friends. Self-care is important for everyone and sometimes that most definitely means ending a relationship (or not letting it start in the first place).

    I guess mostly what I’m saying is be careful. As a writer and blogger you wield a mighty power in the sharing of information. I’m just hoping this information doesn’t leave people with genuine medical conditions out in the cold with no one to turn to because they’ve now been labeled ‘problem people’.

  18. Shanti and Z, thank you for your detailed feedback and criticism. I have revised the post introduction in a way that I hope addresses your concerns.

    This article is a work in progress. It’s as good as it is because of constructive feedback from people like you. I have taken your words to heart and am thinking about how to balance teaching people how to detect and avoid the kind of chronically destructive folks who create major drama and disaster — people who severely damage others, often repeatedly — with encouraging readers to be compassionate toward folks who are not primarily destructive, and just need accommodation, help, or both.

    It’s clearer in my head than it is in the article. I’m struggling to get what’s in my mind and heart into words, so if you have specific suggestions, please make them.

    I spent the first several decades of my own life with severe mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. I have friends who used to or currently struggle with depression, anxiety, addictions, bipolar mood swings, Asperger syndrome, etc. I have immense compassion for good people who have with these sorts of problems, and when I can, I support them in coping, and in getting better.

    Unfortunately, some people are so destructive, at least some of the time, that they are dangerous or damaging to be around. Some are so disruptive that they cause huge amounts of difficulty and turmoil for the people around them. Some do so deliberately. Whether or not these people are considered “mentally ill” is irrelevant. It’s their behavior that is the problem. I hope my article will help readers avoid getting burned by those sorts of problem people. And also help people learn how to change their own destructive behaviors into ones that are more useful, kind, and constructive.

  19. Pingback: Bad Poly: A Case Study « Obscurantista

  20. I say this as a person dealing with a crippling, lifelong mental illness: if your own mental health and happiness are important to you, people who struggle with mental illnesses really are best avoided.

    Does that seem like a horrible thing to say?

    Let me put it this way: being unaware of your effect on others doesn’t change the pain and suffering caused. Their being sick doesn’t fix the emotional drain or bruises caused: because it literally doesn’t matter whether they are in control of themselves or not.

    Would you put up with or stay with someone who hit and punched you because “they were sick and couldn’t help it”? Or beat or terrified your or their children because of an emotional disorder?

    You can be understanding of the source, and still unwilling to suffer the emotional drain and damage to yourself a relationship with that person would cause, without being a bad person.

    Guilting other people into hanging around to be manipulated by you and suffer through your issues is an act of emotional manipulation. The insistence people who “can’t help it” shouldn’t be avoided is part of the process of singling out people already prone to “rescuer” psychology, as those people can most easily be made to feel guilty for not just putting up with it or “looking past” your problems “like a good person would”.

    This is a healthy boundary test that “rescuers” fail; I know this because (due to my own mental health issues) I stayed in a relationship with a mentally ill partner for more than a decade (I believed I needed someone to love, and no one else would love me), and that was the refrain I told myself constantly: “I’m a good person, they just have issues. Good people STAY and DON’T JUDGE.”

    I stayed through behaviors the people around me could see clearly as destructive, unhealthy, and unchanging, despite the effects on my own health and the exacerbation of my own issues, and my insistence “things were getting better” though they were not.

    When my partner had a meltdown that led to them abandoning their own children and running away, did the fact it was caused by “their being sick” make any of their past behavior or their current harmful choices less destructive, hurtful, or damaging?

    Not one bit. You are not a hero just for suffering. Putting up with being harmed does not make you brave or caring or a better person.

    I’ll let you in on a secret: “But it was my sickness!” is a method the more savvy mentally ill people use to shift blame; it is often a sign they aren’t really dealing with their issues, they’re still avoiding responsibility for the effects of their behavior/illness on those around them.

    Here’s the reality: even if you do choose to have a relationship with someone who has issues, and many people do, you can maintain healthy boundaries that let them know it is not OK to act like or treat you the way they are, no matter the reason or the source of the behavior.

  21. Hi RGD,

    Thanks for your AWESOME comment. I totally agree with you!

    I, too, know about this issue first-hand. (I had a crippling and supposedly “incurable” personality disorder for most of my life). But I couldn’t figure out how to write about it clearly. You said it far better than I could. Thank you so much!

  22. I’m shocked and disturbed that you would include a link to the website of Lance Mason a.k.a. Lance Allen, “seduction” guru.

    Lance is exactly the kind of person you are warning people to avoid. He is an unabashed sociopath. He thrives on controlling and manipulating women. I’ve watched him f*** a girl one night, and turn his back on her the next day, just for the hell of it. Yes, such people exist!

    If anything, the “seduction” sites are just good for proving your point: there are dangerous people out there!

    He teaches these same kind of techniques in his so-called “seduction” crap. Yeah, these techwork, when people expect others to be honorable.

  23. M, thanks for posting your concerns. I have heard similar claims about other male teachers of men’s dating, seduction, and pickup skills.

    However, it’s important to separate the message from the messenger. I’m not recommending that my readers date Lance; I’m recommending his material. What Lance teaches has helped a lot of people, especially men who had poor dating skills and the women who had the pleasure of dating them after they wised up.

  24. Pingback: Accountability, personal, Those around you |

  25. Pingback: Can You Face Her In the Morning (How to Assault People Less) | kinkylittlegirl - On Abuse and BDSM

  26. Pingback: Leech | English Language Tutorials

  27. Pingback: Guerrilla Monkey – Bookmarks 29/11/12

  28. Pingback: How to Be a Predator | Spoiled Masochist

  29. I strongly think that some or all of the mentioned behavioral issues in your article is definitely found in each one of us, may it be less or more in proportion. No doubt those are all very destructive yet found in everyone of us.

  30. dodolicaa, I agree! That is what makes detecting problem people so tricky, and why I use a “What are they doing and how much are they doing it?” approach. I hope you found my article helpful. :)

  31. Pingback: Tips for New Dominants to avoid Problem Submissives | mistressgee

  32. Pingback: lunaKM’s Weekend Reflections | Submissive Guide

  33. Pingback: Guerrilla Monkey | Bookmarks 29/11/12

  34. Pingback: What is abuse? | apakistaniwomansjourney

  35. Pingback: Bad Poly: A Case Study – Poly.Land

Leave a Reply