“What am I missing? Why do I keep choosing the wrong men?” Maria asked me. A smart, successful, 35 year-old, Maria came to see me for therapy after her third break-up in as many years. She was tired of dating and tired of having her heart broken.
Maria isn’t alone in feeling a like failure when it comes to relationships. Things always seem promising at the start of her relationships. In fact, when she was last dating, Maria intentionally looked for someone different than her previous boyfriend who had cheated, only to find her new boyfriend was guarded and hurtful in different ways.
So why do you repeatedly choose partners who disappoint, anger, abuse, or simply aren’t a good fit for you?
Perhaps you don’t see your partner for who s/he really is
Traci Lowenthal, Psy.D. told me via email that people “…seek partners they know are not the best fit due to low self-esteem or an inability to trust their inner voice. Frequently, we tend to disregard the ‘red flags’ that pop up early in courtship or over time. Many times, individuals are so interested in easing a particular void in their life that they are willing to overlook important pieces of information related to their partner.”
When you don’t value yourself or feel uneasy being single, you may seek a partner out of neediness rather than out of wholeness. I like to think of romantic relationships as the icing on the cake. Cake is beautiful and delicious and wonderful on its own. The icing adds extra sweetness and enjoyment to the cake, but cake doesn’t need icing. Likewise, you are beautiful and delicious and wonderful on your own. A healthy partnership will add enjoyment to your life, but you don’t need someone else to make you worthy or attractive or successful.
You have unrealistic expectations that your partner will make you whole
When you feel lonely or “broken” or unfulfilled, you look for a partner who will fill your emotional voids and make you feel whole and lovable. Unfortunately, you’re setting yourself up for greater pain when you expect your partner to heal the emotional wounds you bring with you to your relationships.
You get used to chaotic or dysfunctional relationships and they feel comfortable to you
You can get stuck in a self-defeating pattern of dating the “wrong” people in part due to the relationships you witnessed and experienced as a child. Psychotherapist Mari Lee, LMFT, CSAT-S explains: “…some of the reasons behind this repetitive pattern may include unresolved trauma from your family of origin where healthy (or unhealthy) relationships were modeled for you. Our early family is where human beings first learn about boundaries, attachment, and love.
“As we move through our life and dating relationships, it is not unusual for a man or woman to attempt to attach to a person who is not a healthy choice in order to resolve those early issues… In these cases, the individual has mistaken intensity for intimacy – meaning the chaos or lack of healthy attachment is their ‘normal.’ In a nutshell, their brain associates pain, hurt and betrayal with love. If the person did not have a voice that was heard, understood and valued in their family of origin, if they were required to earn love, if boundaries were wishy washy, if abuse or addiction was part of the modeling, then chances are this person will do all of the heavy emotional lifting, often overcompensating with people who are also wounded and are unwilling or unable to attach and love in a healthy way.”
For example, if you developed codependent patterns in childhood, you probably learned care-taking and controlling behaviors in order to survive, and may gravitate towards a partner with addictions or mental health problems or physical impairments who you can take care of and try to “fix.”
How do you stop dating the “wrong” people and find healthy, lasting love?
- Get to know yourself better. “Many people could benefit from knowing and loving themselves more deeply prior to searching for a partner,” says Lowenthal. Dr. Mari Kovanen believes, “the better relationship you can establish with yourself, the more likely you are to find a compatible partner who values you as a truly beautiful person.” She suggests that mindfully reflecting on your feelings, exploring your interests, and journaling, can be useful tools in understanding and loving yourself.
- Reflect on your decisions. Taking time to quietly look inward can provide important insights into your own wants and needs. Often your body and soul intuitively know what you need, if you can tune in and listen to their wisdom. Counselor Kristin Kelly, NCC, LMHC recommends that we spend time “…reflecting on our own [dating] experiences and why we have made the decisions we have thus far. Gaining awareness about our behavior and the decisions we make can empower us to make different choices in the future. With this increased knowledge, we’re able to make healthier choices about the relationships we engage in and those we commit ourselves to.”
- Forgive yourself for past mistakes. Continuing to beat yourself up for past mistakes and judging yourself with hindsight is not only unfair, it keeps you stuck in negative beliefs about yourself. On the other hand, self-compassion allows you to acknowledge your needs and love yourself through difficult times such as heart-break, loneliness, and fear.
- Work with a skilled therapist. I believe we all have issues from childhood that we bring with us into our adult romantic relationships. According to Lee, “working with a therapist to uncover and heal the early trauma roots that ‘whisper you are not worthy of being in a healthy relationship’ is the first step [in changing these patterns].” Until your emotional wounds and unmet needs are resolved, you will continue to seek healing from partners who are unable to make you feel loved or lovable.
- Create boundaries and standards. You deserve to have your partner treat you with respect. When you establish clear boundaries and standards, you are telling your partner and yourself how you expect to be treated. Lee describes these non-negotiable boundaries as things such as: “I will not allow for physical, emotional, or verbal abuse” or “A deal breaker for me is a person who is abusing drugs or alcohol,” or “I will not allow for my next partner to deceive me sexually.” When you’re clear about your expectations, you’ll seek a partner who will respect your boundaries.
Changing your relationship habits requires work. We all have tendencies to repeat behavior patterns once they’re entrenched, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be changed! Learning to accept yourself and feel like a whole and worthy person will set you on the right path toward finding a partner who is also a whole and healthy person.
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©2016 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Image by Zorah Olivia on flickr