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Why Do We Choose Partners Who Remind Us Past Wounds?

We have a tendency to seek partners who seem familiar to us.

Key points

  • Most of us have an innate drive to seek out what feels familiar, even when in romantic relationships.
  • We unconsciously bring into our relationships the attachment styles that are ingrained in us.
  • We attract the same type of people into our lives until we learn the lessons those people are teaching us.
Photo by Alex Green/Pexels
Photo by Alex Green/Pexels

You hear it all the time (and maybe you've even lived it yourself):

  • A person dates (and breaks up with) the same type of person over and over again.
  • They always seem to enter relationships with people who aren't right for them, or who exhibit traits—particularly negative ones—that are eerily similar to traits exhibited by prior partners.
  • They just can't seem to help but be drawn to relationships that will have them repeating the same challenges and conflicts over and over (for example, infidelity, emotional or physical abuse, and so on).

Is this relationship déjà vu some character failing of the individual—or is it something else? Here are a few reasons why so many of us end up with people who resemble ex-partners and even tend to stir up our past emotional wounds.

The transference effect

Most of us have an innate drive to seek out what feels familiar, even when it comes to romantic relationships. This is known as transference: the tendency to be attracted to people who remind us of our prior partners, and sometimes even our parents.

The concept makes some intuitive sense. In familiar situations, we usually feel more comfortable and have fewer cognitive demands placed on us. The problem: A familiar feeling about a romantic relationship might be dysfunctional for many of us.

If you grew up with parents who had a troubled marriage, or if your earliest relationships were marked by criticism, disrespect, stonewalling, jealousy, dishonesty, and other harmful behaviors, you might find yourself naturally attracted to people who also exhibit those familiar behaviors. Being in a relationship with someone like that might hurt—but at least it's what you know, insists your subconscious self.

Attachment styles

Another factor that could explain why you're always attracted to a certain type of person, even if they're not right for you, could be your own attachment style.

Attachment styles, our patterns of bonding and behaving with others in relationships, develop early in life based on how and whether our needs were met by our primary caregivers. These styles are often described as secure, anxious, avoidant, and dismissive. Attachment styles are also pretty sticky—they tend to stay fairly stable over time. This generally means that by the time we reach adulthood, we unconsciously bring into our romantic relationships whatever style of attachment that got grooved into our psyche.

For example, someone with a secure attachment style (who likely grew up with emotionally available caregivers) tends to be strong in trustworthiness, self-esteem, and communication. Securely attached individuals usually feel worthy of love and can build healthy and long-lasting relationships. In comparison, someone with an avoidant attachment style might feel threatened by emotional intimacy and struggle to make lasting commitments, whereas someone with an anxious attachment style will often exhibit clinginess, jealousy, and an intense fear of rejection.

What's interesting is that certain types of attachment styles tend to attract each other more readily. And perhaps paradoxically, the anxiously attached person is often highly drawn to the avoidantly attached person, and vice versa. That pairing, with one partner constantly pulling toward and the other partner constantly pushing away, may lead to relationship conflict and struggle. We might also fall into certain relationship patterns based on the deeply embedded styles of attachment we've held.

The "mirror" concept

Imagine, if you will, that the world—and everything in it—is like a mirror. What you see in others (and in your relationships) is also what you see in yourself, including your most disowned or shame-based parts. This somewhat slant on relationship patterns suggests that if you feel insecure, afraid, or unworthy, for example, you'll tend to attract partners that will reinforce and give rise to those feelings. Likewise, if you have unresolved difficulties from past relationships, you'll be drawn to people who remind you of those difficulties in you and bring them to light.

The mental framework of the world is a mirror also suggests that we will continue to attract the same type of people and situations into our lives until we learn the lessons those people and situations are trying to teach us. We won't level up in our emotional or psychological development until we've finally recognized and healed our past wounds.

Of course, even if you eventually do learn the lessons, heal from past traumas, and break the cycle you've been stuck in (an accomplishment that can be greatly aided by individual and couple's counseling, by the way), it doesn't mean you're exempt from all conflict in future relationships. Know that you will still have ups and downs, but you'll still have plenty of opportunities to learn and grow, too.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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