One of our most essential needs as human beings is to love and be loved. Since we are wired for relationships from the moment we enter the world, one would think it would be easy to pick partners that suit us well. But the truth is, many people repeatedly pick the wrong partner and end up feeling unhappy (and perhaps utterly pained) in their relationship. For some, it’s easy to walk away from a relationship when it’s not right but for others, not so easy. Many people stay in relationships and are even aware of their unhappiness as they know deep down that their partner is not the right one.
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In my psychotherapy practice two of the most common themes I hear among my clients when discussing romantic partnerships are: “Why do I keep choosing the wrong partner?” and “Why do I stay in relationships that make me unhappy?” These are important and complex questions that can only be answered when we take a hard look at ourselves. There are multiple reasons that motivate how we choose our partners and why we stay in dead end relationships—some of these reasons are conscious while others are unconscious. In order to understand what motivates our choices we have to be willing to work on ourselves and build awareness around our patterns.
I want to address some of the factors that may lead us into unhappy partnerships, and what keeps us in them. Once we have a sense of why we choose the way we do, we put ourselves in a better position to make conscious choices and to shift our negative patterns. This will help us get on the trajectory of finding a healthy whole relationship.
Reason #1: Fear
We can all relate to making choices out of fear: deciding whether or not to ask your boss for a raise, confronting someone we feel angry at, and, very commonly, staying in a relationship we know (on some level) is not right for us. Fear is one of the worst decision makers when it comes to choosing a partner. As instant gratification seekers, we thrive on the fantasy of the sparkly life experiences —the grand engagement, wedding, a house, and babies; we just figure we’ll deal with the rest (ie. our relationship struggles) later.
Fear tells us that we better lock a partner down fast or we may be alone forever. It causes us to obsess and sends us the message that it’s too late to break up and start over. In our culture no one wants to be the last single friend, or the really old parent, or be judged for still being single. However, what we should fear most is spending the rest of our lives unhappily with the wrong person. One solution to working with fear is to lean into it, as uncomfortable as it might be, and be real with ourselves about how we feel in our relationship right now. If you are aware that you are with your partner because you are afraid to leave (for whatever reason), try to be aware to the fact that you are choosing to be unhappy now because you are afraid to be unhappy later.
There comes a point where we need to make a choice: We either choose to value our own worth or we don’t. Your partner cannot fill this void.
Reason #2: You Don’t Value Yourself
We all go through periods of feeling high and low. I think it’s helpful to think of self-esteem as existing on a continuum that fluctuates over the course of our lives. However, in relationships nothing interferes with the ability to have an authentic, reciprocal partnership like chronic low self-esteem. It can cause you to sabotage relationships or settle for a relationship in which you’re treated poorly, which ultimately matches your beliefs about yourself. There are so many valid reasons we do this.
Yet there comes a point where we need to make a choice: We either choose to value our own worth or we don’t. Your partner cannot fill this void. No relationship with someone else can ever compensate for secretly believing you don’t deserve it. Depending on your life circumstances, the concept of valuing yourself may feel impossible. I get it—but it is also possible. It’s about starting small and making a commitment to practice being kind to ourselves and recognizing we are valuable, even when we think we don’t deserve it. It’s a process, it will take time, and it will change your life.
Reason #3: The Pressure is Real
Lets just say it: Society gives us terrible advice around our decision making for choosing a partner. We are told things like rely on fate, go with your gut, and hope for the best. We’re bombarded with images on social media that make us feel behind in life. We are indoctrinated with the belief that we have to find a life partner before we are “too old,” which depending on where you live, could be anywhere from ages 21-35. This pressure leads many to settle for partners they know in the long run are wrong for them.
While it’s true that pressure is abundant, remember, this is your life we are talking about. As the writer Tim Urban profoundly stated, “When you choose a life partner, you’re choosing a lot of things, including your parenting partner and someone who will deeply influence your children, your eating companion for about 20,000 meals, your travel companion for about 100 vacations, your primary leisure time and retirement friend, your career therapist, and someone whose day you’ll hear about 18,000 times.” Enough said.
Reason #4: You Believe Your Relationship Will Complete You
There is a huge mistake that many people make when looking for a partner. It is the belief that a romantic relationship is the key to being happy. It’s not true. In fact, this mindset may actually be sabotaging your experience of finding a partner. Here’s why: Other people can feel it when you have anxiety about finding love. When you approach a relationship from a sense of emptiness inside, the people you’re dating will sense it and it won’t feel good to them. When you’re confident, the energy you give off will convey that being in a relationship is your choice, not a dire need. When you have that underlying feeling of needing to find a relationship out of fear, your entire vibe can change from calm and collected to insecure and riddled with self-doubt.
The truth is that only you can complete you, and by that I mean the job of healing one’s own emptiness cannot be handed over to our partners. This is personal work that if left undone will follow you from one relationship to the next.
Many of us pick partners who help us stay within our comfort zone, even if that zone turns out to be less than desirable.
Reason #5: Familiarity
As human beings, we are drawn on an unconscious level toward the familiar. The experiences that make us who we are also influence whom we choose as a partner. Many of us pick partners who help us stay within our comfort zone, even if that zone turns out to be less than desirable. For example, if our past was filled with feelings of rejection or inadequacy, we will be drawn to scenarios in which we feel the same way as adults. Imagine this scenario: You may be initially attracted to someone whose attention makes you feel good about yourself, but eventually, you start to notice that your partner is resistant to getting close and can be dismissive. This will in turn trigger your fear of rejection, validate that you feel inadequate, and trigger anxiety.
Let me be clear that your fear of inadequacy being validated does not mean you are inadequate. What it actually means is that you are being put in the position to confront this belief and to act from a place of self-worth. I want to challenge you to respond differently the next time you feel rejected in your relationship. Notice if there is a familiarity of the situation and ask yourself, “Am I OK with this? Is this what I want in my relationship?” If the answer is no, it is time to act. If you feel you can’t act on your own, it is time to reach out for help.
Reason #6: Your ‘Wounded Self’ is Doing the Attracting
Are you attracted to people that you want to fix? Are you drawn to the “project” aspect of a relationship where you get to help your partner change for the better? If you answered yes, you may be choosing partners from your “wounded self.” The wounded self is the part of you that feels incomplete or damaged; it is the part that makes you question your worth or makes you think you are flawed in some way, always wondering if you are worth loving. When you put your energy into helping your partner heal from their issues it is a way of unconsciously acting out how you wish to be treated.
The patience, love, support you provide to your partner is an unconscious desire of what you craved in your early relationships. It gets unconsciously framed in the psyche as “if I can get “x” to change, then I am worth it, I am loveable.” For some people it is easier to put their focus and attention on how their partner needs to change because it allows them to avoid having to look at their own “stuff.” There is much healing to be done when we are choosing our partners from an unhealthy part of us. When we show up this way in our relationship we are actually abandoning ourselves and avoiding our deeper needs. This is a recipe for unhappiness.
Each relationship you encounter in your life comes with lessons for you to learn and what you need to evolve.
One of the most profound and challenging aspects of being in a relationship is that it provides us with the opportunity for personal growth, if we allow it. Each relationship you encounter in your life comes with lessons to learn and what you need to evolve. But you have to want to evolve. And until you do, you will continue to face the same issues with each relationship moving forward. If we can think of each relationship as an opportunity to examine where we get stuck or triggered and aim to work on those parts of ourselves then we put ourselves in a better position to choose healthy, whole relationships.