Why Do Some People Constantly Pick the Wrong Partner?

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A lot of people with sex and relationship issues note that one of their primary problems is that their “picker” seems to be broken. They just seem to constantly pair up with the absolute wrong person, and they don’t know why or how to break free from this seemingly never-ending cycle.

Usually, these individuals are in some way mirroring what they learned about bonding and attachment in early childhood. Typically, their caregivers were not consistently there for them in healthy ways, so they did not learn to become vulnerable and to trust in ways that allow them to fully connect, or they did not learn how to implement and maintain healthy boundaries in their most important relationships. Either way, these otherwise intelligent and successful people find themselves stuck in a repeating cycle of insecure, unhappy, occasionally abusive relationships.

Typically, these problematic relational patterns fall into one of four categories, delineated below.

  1. The “Same Person” Dater: The people these individuals date have different names and faces, but the same basic shortcomings. In other words, these men and women repeatedly date people who are addicted, unavailable, abusive, prone to infidelity, etc. Whatever the issue, their choices nearly always mirror the neglect, enmeshment, abuse, or inconsistency they experienced when young.
  2. The Fantasy Dater: These individuals confuse sexual and romantic intensity with love. They tend to have a lot of sex, even if what they’re hoping for is love. Every time they have a hookup—especially if the other person is kind, engaged, and good in bed—they think they’ve found true love. Nearly always, these men and women were objectified and sexualized at an early age, often by a caretaker, and that abuse is the root cause of their confusion about the difference between sex and love.
  3. The Serial Searcher: The early stage of meeting someone new and feeling the rush of early romance is technically referred to as limerence. Limerence is when another person’s mere existence seems like a gift from the gods. Limerence is a vital but temporary stage in the development of longer-term romantic connection, serving as the glue that keeps people together while they work to build lasting intimacy. Unfortunately, limerence can land some people in relationships that aren’t healthy. They jump into an intense relationship, thinking it’s love, and when limerence wears off they realize they’ve picked the wrong person yet again.
  4. The Push-Pull Dater: These individuals desperately want to develop intimate connection, but panic when that longed-for person gets too close. They invite people in, promising healthy intimacy, but then, when the other person moves toward them and tries to build emotional connection, they push that person away through expressions of anger, infidelity, disinterest, and countless other tactics. Yet again, this occurs because they learned, usually early in childhood (courtesy of parental neglect and abuse), that others can’t be trusted.

Whichever dysfunctional relationship pattern people with defective pickers are stuck in, the process of healing and engaging in healthier and more rewarding forms of intimacy is the same. First and foremost, they must accept that they do indeed have a “defective picker,” meaning they’re just not that adept at choosing people who are good for them, and then, as they move forward, they’ll need to approach relationships differently to overcome that shortcoming.

The process of overcoming a “defective picker” will be discussed in this space next week.