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.
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.
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.
- Tip #1: Beware the sunk cost fallacy.
- Tip #2: Learn that healthy relationships aren’t dramatic.
- Tip #3: Consciously note what makes a good partner.
- Tip #4: Think about what you need, not what you’re drawn to.
- 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.
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.
For free, helpful downloads to fight social anxiety and be your authentic self, visit EllenHendriksen.com.
Image of arguing couple © Shutterstock
Want more Savvy Psychologist? Subscribe below.