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.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #187
couple argues at cafe

Yes, you’ve invested years in this relationship. Yes, you’ve invested sweat and tears and heart-wrenching emotion. This can all be true and you can still walk away. Don’t stay in or go back simply because of your sunk costs. Leave it behind and move on.

Tip #2: Learn that healthy relationships aren’t dramatic.

The maxim that relationships are work is true: communication is a constant project, no one is free of baggage, and building a life together includes figuring out who’s going to fold the laundry and how to afford the latest credit card bill.

Building a relationship isn’t always easy, but fundamentally, being together should be undramatic. Mind games, manipulation, threats, getting friends to support your alibi—these have no place in a relationship. A good partner is happy, not threatened, when you succeed. They comfort, rather than pounce, when you are vulnerable.

Many of my clients who have found a healthy partnership after a string of bad apples have echoed the same refrain: “I never realized that good relationships are actually quite boring.” It’s true: in healthy relationships, the police don’t show up, no one disappears for a week, there are no holes in the drywall, you don’t try to hack each other’s phones, no one sleeps with the other’s best friend, and no one screams and throws flaming belongings out the window at midnight.

Instead, healthy relationships are about being each other’s biggest fans, helping each other through tough times, and having a good time doing it. You should enjoy the time you spend together. You should like and respect your partner as well as love them.

So don’t mistake intensity for love. Good relationships include a conspicuous lack of drama. Call it boring, or call it healthy.

Tip #3: Consciously note what makes a good partner.

Observe the relationships of people you trust. What makes them work? Watch them and see how they do it. Actually seeing a good relationship modeled makes it much easier to spot similar behaviors when it’s your turn to try again.

For example, you might observe a non-defensive owning of small mistakes, followed by trying to make it right. “Oh, I totally forgot I said I would pick up that package—I’m so sorry. Here, I’ll set a reminder on my phone right now to get it tomorrow.” Or note how one partner steps up while the other is having a tough week at work, and then watch how the other does the same in return. Make a mental note how they talk each other up not because their partner’s accomplishments make them look good, but because they’re genuinely proud of their partner’s success.

Tip #4: Think about what you need, not what you’re drawn to.

Remember those lists of ideal partner traits you and your friends drew up in high school? “He has to have good hair and have a car.” “She has to be hot and like video games.” Luckily, our partnership choices are seldom determined by our high school tastes.

More often, they are informed by chemistry: the complex emotional spark between two people. But when our picker is broken we can’t trust chemistry to decide for us. There’s a saying: “Stop painting red flags green.” It reminds us to heed early warning signs rather than pushing forward because we’re swept up in the rush of chemistry.

Therefore, instead of getting pulled toward red-flag traits that feel familiar, think about what you need. Reflect on a grown-up version of a checklist. But unlike high school, this time it should focus on what kind of person they are and how they treat you. Perhaps you need integrity: someone fair and trustworthy. Perhaps reliability—someone who does what they say. Maybe you need someone who respects your boundaries when you state what you are or are not willing to do.

Tip #5: When first starting out, take chemistry with a grain of salt.

Choosing your first relationship after a string of bad ones is tough. It’s like learning to walk again: you’re hesitant and don’t quite trust yourself not to fall.

If you’re worried your picker is broken, temporarily override it with your brain. Think of it like food. Our picker might love jelly donuts, but we know jelly donut after jelly donut isn’t good for us, even if they’re comforting and familiar. Instead, consciously choose something healthier. Just like taste buds can evolve to prefer healthier options, so can your partner picker.

Now, it’s important to remember that choosing something healthier doesn’t mean you have to choose something you don’t like. You don’t have to resign yourself to eating rice cakes and bean sprouts if you hate them. Likewise, don’t grit your teeth and date someone you have nothing in common with or are not attracted to just because they’re stable.

Instead, be aware of the rush that comes when you see a jelly donut, a cocky smile, a rebel without a cause, or a train wreck in need of rescuing. That rush of chemistry isn’t credible when you’re trying to repair your picker. Instead, remind yourself of what you’ve learned from observing the healthy relationships in your life and what kind of person you truly want to be with. Heed the red flags and take chemistry with a grain of salt. This is hard and will feel unnatural and maybe even wrong at first, but it’s worth the investment to slowly step away from the frogs.

Pre-order Ellen's forthcoming book HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. Get even more savvy tips to be happier and healthier by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or get each episode delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for the newsletter. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

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Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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