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Why We Choose Ill-Matched Romantic Partners (And How to Stop)

Why do we choose people who are so wrong for us? And more importantly, how can we stop? This week, we're exploring what to do when your 'partner picker' is broken.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #187
couple argues at cafe

 

Every one of us has a bad relationship tale to tell—the frog or two scattered among the princes and princesses. There was the guy who did his business with the bathroom door open. Or the girl who would lick utensils clean and put them back in the drawer. There was the one who split every joint purchase down to the penny. And the one who thought inflatable furniture was perfectly sufficient.

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Again, everyone chooses a frog once in awhile. But sometimes we find ourselves in a pattern: a string of partners that go beyond gross or thoughtless and cross the line into unhealthy or even downright toxic. At some point, we may realize we’ve dated a string of frogs—with the result of decimating our self-esteem and leaving us guilty, afraid, or numb.

But worst of all, given the chance to start over, too often, we pick another frog. The partners we feel chemistry with are the ones who are all wrong for us. We’re attracted to their confidence, their laid-back cool, or their financial success. But over time, what we thought was confidence emerges as control, the attitude we thought was laid back degenerates into sloth, and the money turns out to be no consolation for relentless greed.

Why is our mate selector broken? And can it be fixed? This week, by request from listener Amanda, we’ll tackle the question of why we choose people who are wrong for us and how to stop.

First, why do we do this to ourselves? Consider two reasons.

Reason #1: We seek out consistency.

There’s a saying among therapists: People would rather be consistent than happy.

If you grew up with a sense of your own inherent worth and came to learn that people are generally kind, trustworthy, and well-meaning, you’ll likely choose a partner consistent with that upbringing. It’s what you’re used to. It feels normal

By contrast, if you grew up surrounded by chaos, dysfunction, perfectionism, or emotional distance, that’s what feels like home. If we’ve learned we are a troublemaker, merely decorative, or need to throw a tantrum to get noticed, we’ll naturally gravitate toward those attitudes in a partner. On a deeper level, if we believe we’re not good enough, will never amount to anything, or are worthless, we choose partners who make us feel the same way. Again, it feels normal.

Now, this is not to say you deserve a partner who treats you like dirt just because you chose him or her. Everyone deserves to be safe and respected. But if drama, hostility, or indifference feel normal, it’s time for a new normal.

Reason #2: Our brains see bad partners as a do-over.

Why do we put ourselves in the same position again and again? We see another bad relationship as a chance to rehabilitate, to fix. We want to right the wrong.

Kids who grow up in the midst of turmoil or neglect often come out the other side thinking it was their fault. It’s simply how brains work—we are wired to be self-referential. When we see a group of kids whispering to each other, we assume it’s about us. Likewise, when we see conflict and unhappiness all around us, we assume we’re the reason. It must be our fault.

But the flip side of fault is control. If it was our fault, we must also be able to fix it. So we pick an unhealthy partner and try for a do-over.

But there’s more: the power dynamic inherent in thinking we’re in a position to fix or change our partner gives us not only a sense of control, but also, weirdly, a sense of hope. Although these turn out to be illusions, it can be comforting to think that if only we try harder, things can be better.

But we can’t get blood from a turnip. And we can’t get the love and support we need from a partner who’s controlling, out to lunch, narcissistic, emotionally unavailable, or downright abusive.

Which brings us to: what can we do about this? How can we stop the conveyor belt of frogs? Here are five ways to fix a broken partner picker.

  1. Tip #1: Beware the sunk cost fallacy.
  2. Tip #2: Learn that healthy relationships aren’t dramatic.
  3. Tip #3: Consciously note what makes a good partner.
  4. Tip #4: Think about what you need, not what you’re drawn to.
  5. Tip #5: When first starting out, take chemistry with a grain of salt.

Let's explore each a little further.

Tip #1: Beware the sunk cost fallacy.

If you’re still firmly entrenched in a bad relationship, remember the more you’ve invested, the harder it is to abandon ship. But you can’t turn ground beef into filet mignon no matter how hard you try.

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