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.
- Try as they might, they just can’t seem to help but be drawn to relationships that will have them repeating the same type of challenges and conflicts over and over (e.g., infidelity, emotional or physical abuse, codependency, etc.).
Is this relationship déjà vu some kind of character failing of the individual—or is it something else? Let’s explore a few reasons why so many of us end up with people who resemble ex-partners and even tend to trigger 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 in psychology 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, doesn’t it? In familiar situations, we usually feel more comfortable and have fewer cognitive demands placed on us. The problem is, what feels “familiar” about romantic relationships might actually be quite dysfunctional for many of us.
Think of it this way: 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. Sure, being in a relationship with someone like that might hurt—but at least it’s what you know, insists your subconscious self.
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, andavoidant. Attachment styles are also pretty “sticky,” in that 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 way back in childhood.
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 are able to 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. Can you see how that pairing—with one partner constantly pulling toward and the other partner constantly pushing away—may lead to relationship conflict and struggle? Can you also see how we might “fall into” certain relationship patterns based on the deeply embedded styles of attachment we’ve held since childhood?
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 metaphysical 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 issues from past relationships, you’ll be drawn to people who “trigger” those issues 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, in other words, until we’ve finally recognized and healed our old 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.