Why You Tend To Date Similar People Over and Over
Curious fact: My current romantic partner and my last long-term partner have the same birthday.
They also both enjoy the same weird improv show (my ex has seen the Chicago performance dozens of times, including several times with me; my current partner happens to adore the troupe's New York branch and independently brought it up in the first week or two of us dating), and they were both the jokesters of their respective social circles. They're also both emotionally mature and tremendously kindhearted people.
You can bet I was seriously unnerved about a lot of the glaring similarities when I first started seeing my current partner. But the truth is, dating people who are a lot like our exes is actually pretty normal, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
People really do have "types" when it comes to dating.
The researchers looked at an ongoing German study on families and romantic relationships that began in 2008 and continues to collect new data every year. That study started with surveying over 12,000 participants and asked to also survey their romantic partners if they were in relationships; each year, the original folks were asked if they had a new partner, who then was also contacted to be surveyed. Everyone answered questions about their personalities and how they behaved in relationships, giving the researchers a unique set of data on a total of 332 people, their partners, and at least one ex.
Their findings? The PNAS study found "a significant degree of distinctive partner similarity, suggesting that there may indeed be a unique type of person each individual ends up with." In other words, yes, we apparently tend to date similar people over and over again over time.
Just to confirm, the researchers also compared how partners' self-reported personalities compared with how the average person describes themselves (everyone usually wants to describe themselves positively, after all) and still found a person's current partner exhibited similarities to the "unique personality" of their exes outside what everybody says about themselves.
Why we keep dating the same exact people, time and time again.
These findings couldn't specifically pinpoint an explanation for why we do this, but the researchers did have a couple of theories. First and foremost, they point out that plenty of research has shown we tend to date people who are like ourselves—so obviously all your partners past and present will seem similar to each other because all of them are similar to you.
But the researchers accounted for this tendency in their analysis and still found a person's current and past partner were similar to each other in ways other than the ways they were similar to that focal person.
Another possibility? Demographics. "One possible explanation is that people consistently inhabit environments with others of a particular personality, and thus, consistent partner personality may reflect selecting from these consistent environments (e.g., working with fellow tour guides leads to consistently dating extroverted individuals)," the researchers explain in the paper.
We can only date the people who we're able to meet, so barring the folks who like to set their dating app searches to include the entire continent and beyond, most of us tend to simply date the people physically around us—and those people are often like-minded characters in at least some ways. Past studies have demonstrated similarities between people's current and past partners due to the generally homogenous groups of people in their particular environments. For example, if you go to an Ivy League school, you'll probably end up dating a lot of intellectual types—go figure!
Unpacking your unconscious patterns.
"There is something about the constellation of qualities that some people have that one might be particularly drawn to. It could be that people with these qualities tend to bring out the best in us or might have more commonality or complementarity," relationship and well-being coach Shula Melamed explains to mbg.
That certainly resonates with my story: Of course I was initially weirded out by all the similarities my current partner had to my ex. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how unsurprising it really is. My ex is still one of the best people I know, and the five years I spent with him constituted not only my first major adult relationship (and my longest one to date) but also some of the most transformative, cherished times of my life. Many of my romantic interests since then, whether casual flings or friends with benefits or lasting partnerships, have shared at least some similarities to him. Those traits are familiar, feel good to be around, demonstrably work with my personality, and are frankly just what I want in a partner.
That said, not everyone is blessed with sweet exes. We all have that friend (or are that friend) who consistently dates bad boys, jerks, sleazebags, and emotionally unavailable people. According to Melamed, many people tend to gravitate toward people who "trigger unhealed emotional wounds" from their past.
"People might pick people who are triggering or bad for them because they haven't resolved certain issues that they have around themselves or their worthiness to be loved or accepted," she explains. "So, for instance, a person might pick partners who are dismissive or disrespectful because perhaps it is a dynamic they observed between caretakers, or there is a story this person has about their own deservedness of respect."
What to do.
If you're someone who has dated a lot of very similar people, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. (My ex was great; my current partner is great. That's a win for me!) There are many reasons you might be repeatedly drawn to the same personality traits, and as long as those relationships are all independently healthy and satisfying, don't sweat it—there's nothing inherently weird or unhealthy going on here.
Of course, if you're repeating patterns and finding yourself in the same toxic relationship time and time again, it's worth spending some time to reflect on what's going on.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter