Why You Keep Dating The Wrong People & How To Improve Your Odds of Finding the Right One
It’s easy to fall in love. It’s not so easy to make that love last. It takes curiosity, emotional intelligence, and a willingness to give up being right. It also takes being with someone who is willing and able to do those things.
Critically, long-lasting love comes from both people doing the necessary work to create a strong, stable partnership over time. Both partners must be actively engaged in this process, much of which requires individual effort. Because of this, you’re more likely to succeed in love if you choose your partner wisely in the first place.
Unfortunately, choosing the right person is exactly where many people struggle. If you’re someone who finds themselves in relationships with the wrong people often, here are a few things to keep in mind—and small shifts to make to improve your odds.
Why we often end up dating the wrong people
Most often, we choose partners based on the way they make us feel. However, the intensity of our romantic feelings doesn’t necessarily correlate to how good a partner that person is for us.
Many of us suffer from what I call “love jerk syndrome,” which is the tendency to fall head over heels for someone who is consistently hurtful due to immaturity, lack of self-control, or lack of empathy. Many of these people are incredibly charming when you first meet them—such as the narcissist, who showers a new lover with affection to draw them in before allowing their true, self-serving nature to reveal itself.
Some people thrive off the thrill of unrequited love—chasing someone who seems unattainable yet gives you breadcrumbs to keep you wanting more.
Intermittent reinforcement (i.e., “hot-and-cold” love) is utterly tantalizing, whereas dating a consistently kind and loyal person may feel boring. It’s hard to resist the fantasy of being the one person who can “tame the wild girl” or make the “bad boy” fall in love.
Biologically speaking, we are programmed to seek out a mate who is likely to produce the healthiest offspring. That means we’re primed to seek out certain physical traits over a loving soul. Some research suggests we also seek out diversity on the genetic level—that is, someone who is different from us biologically. With all these factors in play, relationship compatibility may not have much of an impact on whether we fall for them.
More broadly speaking, the neurochemical reaction to falling in love can make us even more likely to miss red flags in a new partner. Our bodies flood with feel-good endorphins, bonding-promoting oxytocin, and other chemicals that cloud our judgment and put us in a temporary state of obsession.
As Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, co-creators of Imago Relationship Therapy, put it, the chemical cocktail that accompanies the early stages of falling in love is “nature’s anesthesia, which numbs us to the knowledge that we are falling in love with an incompatible person.”
We seek familiarity both because it’s comforting and because we hope we may be able to get what we haven’t yet been able to get from those dynamics—for example, approval from a critical partner or love from a typically unattached person.
In my love skills classes, we often spend time reflecting on our histories to understand our current relationship behaviors. People are usually surprised to discover the subtle ways they’re seeking out challenges from their past in their present relationships.
How to improve your selection process
Clearly, there are many biological and psychological reasons why selecting a quality partner can be so hard to do—so don’t be too hard on yourself for occasionally ending up with a jerk.
The good news is, there are a few things you can do to help improve your selection process:
Get to know yourself
When you have a good understanding of what you’re bringing into the relationship, it becomes easier to recognize which partners will support your growth, healing, and flourishing—and which ones won’t.
Knowing yourself fully means understanding your own specific strengths and challenges when it comes to relationships, how past experiences continue to affect you today, and where you are most vulnerable. What triggers you in a partnership? What makes you feel secure and loved? What qualities in a partner bring out the best in you? The worst?
Check your potential partner’s history
Pay attention to a potential partner’s history and level of self-awareness. How do they speak about exes and past relationships? Are they able to acknowledge their part in situations that haven’t gone well, or is it always the other person’s fault? What kind of relationships do they have with their family members? (No trouble and all trouble are both “trouble.”)
Long-lasting relationships require all partners to be able to take responsibility for conflict, apologize, and make amends. How a person handled these things in the past gives important information about how they’re likely to handle them in the future.
Listen to your trusted circle
Get the input of your friends, family, relationship professionals, or anyone else whose opinions you trust. If you’ve got a handful of loved ones pointing out the same red flags in your partner, take those warnings seriously.
Remember that our judgment can become clouded by the intoxicating chemical cocktail that comes with falling in love. Sometimes third-party observers may be able to see your situation with a little more clarity.
You don’t need your friends’ approval on all your life decisions, but it’s worth cultivating curiosity about what they’re seeing in a person or a situation that you aren’t.
Avoid any permanent decisions while you’re in the so-called “honeymoon phase,” or the early stages of falling in love with someone. Take your time getting to know your partner before rushing into any big steps with major consequences, such as getting married, having a baby, or moving to Cleveland together. Find out who this person is when they’re angry or disappointed.
Although we can’t override our attraction to another person, we can choose not to move toward what may not be good for us. We may still occasionally find ourselves with the wrong person—after all, it takes time to know whether someone is a suitable mate, and we may very well be in love by the time the realization dawns on us.
But along the way, we can exercise appropriate caution and choose to start paying attention to the things that truly matter when it comes to finding long-lasting love.
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.