Dear Dr. Warren,
My last relationship ended about six months ago and I think I’m ready to head back in to the dating world, but I’m a little scared to make the same mistakes I’ve made in the past. I seem to have a knack for being attracted to the wrong qualities in a person and end up dating the same kind of people. I have to believe that there is a happier relationship out there for me than the ones I’ve experienced. How can I make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself? I’m not sure I could handle another heartbreak.
Sarah in Tacoma, WA
Thank you for your question—it’s an excellent one, and I hear it often. First and foremost, let me congratulate you for being one step ahead of the gang: you are starting to recognize which aspects of your past relationships are not healthy for you and are willing to take steps forward to change your viewpoints and behaviors so that you can find a relationship that is so much better than the ones you’ve experienced in the past.
Being attracted to the “wrong” qualities in another can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes these aspects of a partner’s or potential partner’s personality aren’t “wrong” per se, but they are wrong for you—that is what’s known as incompatibility. In the beginning, these “wrong” qualities may attract you because they seem different and unique. They may even seem exciting. However in my experience, I like to say that opposites attract but then attack. Getting involved in any relationship in the beginning is exciting and new, but it’s how you feel six months or a year, or two years, or five years—or twenty years!—down the road that matters.
There’s a lot of talk these days about what compatibility means, and what I’ve found is that compatibility between two people is the single most important predictor of long-term relationship success. A successful relationship is a happy, loving and nurturing experience, and the word “partner” is not lip service. When you are in the right relationship for you, your partner is your best friend. By choosing your dates from among your eHarmony matches, you’ve already taken the biggest step toward avoiding dating the “wrong” kind of person for you because you’re already deeply compatible based on 29 Dimensions of Compatibility.
Another reason that you may be drawn to incompatible partners is that you may be choosing to date people not so much because you like them, but because you think you should like them. This kind of viewpoint comes from internalizing what you think your family, friends and even society at large thinks is the right kind of person to date. For instance, if your parents instilled in you that you needed to marry a serious type of person but if you yourself are more compatible with someone who is more easygoing and creative, dating the more serious types may satisfy your family, but they sure won’t make you happy. The bottom line is that you need to make the best decisions for you. It’s okay to listen to their advice, but in the end it’s your choice.
A person can also be attracted to the wrong type of partner because of witnessed or experienced dysfunction. This could be from observation of how parental figures interacted while growing up, or it could develop because of certain profound life experiences that a person encounters all on their own. Keep in mind that just because something is familiar to you doesn’t mean it is the healthiest for you. While it can take a lot of soul searching to understand your motivations and choices, it is well worth the happiness that lies on the other side of healing. I can’t stress enough that if you find yourself in this situation of making poor partner choices because of witnessed or experienced dysfunction or trauma, a trained therapist is an excellent tool to help you understand yourself and help you move beyond these problems.
There is a happier relationship out there for you, Sarah, so don’t lose faith. The best way to ensure that history does not repeat in your choice of romantic partners is to learn as much about yourself and what type of person is most compatible with you. Discovering yourself is a continuing lifelong journey, and by recognizing the need to change you’re already heading in the direction of happiness and contentment—keep going. Let us know how you do.
Dr. Neil Clark Warren