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What Attracts Us to Bad Relationships?

bad relationshipsWhat qualities do you look for in a partner? Charming, sweet, good smile, sexy, smart, good to their family and so on? So many people look for similar qualities in a partner, but it’s common to see people in relationships where their partner can be hurtful, neglectful, disrespectful, or downright mean at times.

How did they end up with this kind of person?

Attraction is an interesting and tricky psychology, and in order to shed some light on why people at times choose partners who are unhealthy for them, it’s first necessary to understand how attraction works.

What Causes People to Become Attracted?

If your answer is “good looks,” believe it or not, this is hardly an indicator of what causes a person to choose a relationship. Finding a person to be “attractive” isn’t the same as being emotionally drawn to them.

Who we become attracted to has a lot to do with how we grew up. But it’s not as simple as finding someone who reminds us of our parents. What’s crucial in attraction is that we find a person who re-creates the psychological environment of our childhood — an emotional comfort zone — while also setting up the potential for the repair of issues that were present in our childhood.

This comfort zone was created psychologically as we grew up, based on the role we played with our caretakers.

How Do Our Parents Fit In?

Dr. Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Therapy, discusses attraction in terms of what he calls “The Lost Self.” Essentially, as we developed into the world, we learned to suppress emotional pieces of who we are based on experiences that we had. For example, if we learned through consequences that showing anger was bad, anger may have become a piece of our disowned selves since we learned to disconnect from anger.

We may have learned to smile when angry, or joke, or anything that will help us avoid being in touch with our anger, since experiencing anger was somehow threatening to us.

But with attraction, Hendrix asserts that we become drawn to someone who can connect to the emotional areas that we disowned — e.g. someone who can be outwardly expressive of anger would be very attractive to someone who’s disowned outward feelings of anger.

Hendrix also asserts that we are attracted to people who encompass positive and negative qualities of our caretakers. Early in relationships, the comfort zone described above brings a sense of euphoria, fooling us into believing that we’re finally going to repair those issues from our childhood that we never repaired with our parents.

Early in the relationship, our subconscious interprets our partner’s negative qualities as the potential for repair (potential holds a positive emotion). However, after the honeymoon phase of a relationship passes, those same negative qualities that helped bring two people together start to become annoying and irritating.

We start to see that our new relationship isn’t really going to resolve our childhood issues, and now we are left to deal with similar frustrations of similar issues that we experienced in childhood!

Comfortable Isn’t Always Healthy

There’s more to the attraction mechanism than this (e.g. attachment, relationship role modeling, etc.), but what’s important here is that our subconscious seeks familiarity, potential for repair and someone who can elicit our suppressed emotional selves, whether or not it’s a healthy relationship for us.

So for people who were abused by their caretakers as children, it makes sense that they could end up with a person who is also abusive. In a sense, the comfort zone says, “I’ve lived in this type of environment before, and therefore I already know how to function in it and deal with it. It’s comfortable to me and I feel at home here.”

Understanding these properties of what emotionally draws us to someone, it’s part of our job as people to learn about our own relationship patterns, especially if we’ve had a history of unhealthy relationships. If our upbringing has wired us for unhealthy relationship environments as adults, it may take some professional therapy to psychologically re-wire our attraction mechanism to seek healthy relationships.

No one is destined to unhealthy relationships — we are molded into it, and we can be molded back. With a bit of motivation and determination, it is possible to have the healthy relationship we desire.

Upset couple photo available from Shutterstock

What Attracts Us to Bad Relationships?

Nathan Feiles, MSW, LCSW-R

Nathan Feiles is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. He also provides online teletherapy to people who live in California and Massachusetts, as well as providing online coaching nationally and internationally. In his practice, Nathan specializes in anxiety issues, depression, relationships, commitment issues and 'grass is greener' syndrome, fear of flying (specialized method), creative blocks, and migraines. For more information about Nathan Feiles’s work, including a complete list of services, please visit his website at

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APA Reference
Feiles, N. (2012). What Attracts Us to Bad Relationships?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Aug 2012
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