Why We Fall for People Who Are Bad for Us (and How to Stop)

Published on: 26 Jul 2018
A man blowing a cloud of smoke

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone who not only wasn’t a good fit, they were downright bad for you. Keep your hand up if you find yourself pursuing this same kind of person over and over again. My hand is still up, is yours?

So often we find ourselves pursuing people who aren’t right for us, continuing a cycle that can sometimes last year or even a lifetime. A new relationship may feel right initially, but that charismatic charmer soon reveals themselves to be yet another emotionally unavailable partner. We don’t even see it coming. Why do we keep going for people who are bad for us?

One reason we pursue Mr., Ms., or Mx. “Wrong” time and time again can be found at the beginning of our relationship building — childhood.

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Examining These Roots Through Childhood Experiences

There’s a reason many therapists trace our history back to childhood. What does how you felt at age 5 have to do with your adult life? A lot, actually. We learn how to relate to other people as young children and those patterns follow us right into adulthood.

“What shapes who we choose as a romantic partner is our relationships with our primary caretakers as kids,” Los Angeles-based psychologist Sarah Schewitz tells Talkspace. “We’re unconsciously searching for somebody who has a conglomeration of negative and positive traits of the caretakers from our childhood.”

Especially for those who experienced abuse, but even for those who had an ideal childhood, children always have needs that weren’t exactly met. It could have been an emotionally unavailable parent, parents who were overly involved, or even a taunting sibling. When these same traits pop up in a person we’re in a relationship with, Schewitz says they will “trigger you in a way that’s uniquely painful for you.” It’s these people who are “bad” for us.

Learning to Assess Our Attachment Styles

Early relationships therefore determine our attachment style: the sense of safety, security, and comfort we learn based on how our needs are met (or not met). In a nutshell, some of us become anxiously attached and prefer a lot of closeness and reassurance, while others are avoidant of attachment and like to keep a distance. Those with a secure attachment style can tolerate both closeness and distance to others with confidence.

In adult relationships, another clue we’re seeking a person who might not be a good fit is a simple mismatch in attachment style. This is the premise that authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller outline in their book, Attached, and one that Schewitz has also seen in her practice.

“A lot of times people who are anxiously attached…are attracted to people who are avoidant of attachment. Those two attachment types are like magnets to each other,” says Schewitz of a classic attachment style mismatch. “That’s also where you might be dating somebody that’s ‘bad’ for you. It’s not necessarily that they’re bad, they just have a different attachment style.”

Reasons We Can’t Change in our Relationships

Consciously or unconsciously, sometimes we’re drawn to repeating these early patterns as adults with the hope that somehow we can change or make up for what we didn’t get as children.

“People are drawn to whatever they are familiar with, and they end up replicating the same patterns they experienced in their earliest relationships,” writes psychologist Samantha Rodman for Attract The One. “People become fixated on the idea of changing their partner in ways that they could never change their parent when they were young.”

No matter how often we find ourselves attracted to people who trigger us, we’ll never be able to “solve” what went wrong in the past through an adult relationship. We can change and evolve in the present, but in order to find the romantic partner we do want, we first have to take a step back and get honest about who we’re attracted to and why it isn’t working.

“A good first step is writing a list of all your previous partners who you’ve been disappointed with and note the similar traits and behaviors between them,” Rodman advises. “If you notice a theme, it is likely that this reflects an unmet need from your childhood.”

“It’s Not You, It’s Me”

It may be a terrible cliche, but there’s some truth to the old phrase, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Discovering how our early attachments affect us in the present and learning to meet our own needs accordingly is perhaps the most important work we can do to find those we really want. After all, a successful relationship will not “complete” you — only you can do that.

“When you approach a relationship from a sense of emptiness inside, the people you’re dating will sense it and it won’t feel good to them,” psychotherapist Jodee Virgo revealed to The Everygirl. “The job of healing one’s own emptiness cannot be handed over to our partners. This is personal work that if left undone will follow you from one relationship to the next.”

Having an awareness of how our past impacts our current relationships, and gaining confidence in our identity, will pay off in future relationships. The work may be hard, and a mental health professional can help, but it’s crucial to finding healthier and more satisfying relationships.

“You really need to do the work with yourself first,” Schewitz says. “If you’re not whole and complete and emotionally available and all of those things, it’s unlikely you’re going to attract someone who is. So you do that work on yourself, and then you can start attracting people who are more on par with where you’re at.”

Learning to Find The Right People

Once we’ve done the internal work and recognize our weak spots, it’s also helpful to be intentional about the people we are looking for.

“It’s really important to know what you’re looking for,” says Schewitz, who also recommends reading Getting the Love You Want or Keeping The Love You Find by Harville Hendrix to gain more insight into relationships. “I would have people create a vision for…their ideal relationship. What does it look like? What does it feel like? How often are you hanging out? Are you affectionate? Do you feel emotionally supported?”

Create a vision board or write it down so it’s top of mind when we’re on the dating scene. Take this a step further and identify five key characteristics you want in a partner and then actively seek those out. Also keep in mind it may take a little trial and error to break the old relationship habits. In the meantime, every experience is an opportunity for growth on the path to finding someone who is right for you.

“Each relationship you encounter in your life comes with lessons to learn and what you need to evolve,” Jodee Virgo says. “If we can think of each relationship as an opportunity to examine where we get stuck or triggered and aim to work on those parts of ourselves, then we put ourselves in a better position to choose healthy, whole relationships.”

Over time as we get to know ourselves better and keep our hearts open, we’ll stop going for people who are bad for us and find the healthy relationships we deserve. And that, my friends, is amore.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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