Recently a number of clients have asked me about patterns they’ve noticed in their relationships. They keep dating the same “type” of person… and that type isn’t “thoughtful, kind, loving, and generous, with great communication skills.” What they’ve noticed is that try as they might to change the pattern, they keep dating jerks.
There are a lot of reasons people do this, and an extensive, in-depth exploration of the topic fills the entire self-help section of your local book store Amazon wishlist. But as I process this with people, three themes keep coming up. My clients find these ideas helpful, so I want to share them with you.
You’re Dating Jerks Because You’re Trying to Solve a Puzzle from Childhood
I’m not the kind of therapist who says everything is all about your parents, but in this case, it may well be.
If you’re lucky, as Randy Pausch described it in The Last Lecture, you “win the parent lottery”. Your parents are loving and attentive. When you cry, they comfort you. When you fail at something, they dust you off, tell you it’s okay, and empower you to try again. They provide for all of your needs. They are caring, kind people who model positive relationships (often, but not always, with your other parent), distress tolerance skills, and emotional stability.
If this is your childhood, when you grow up, you have a context for what love looks and feels like when it’s healthy. That doesn’t mean that you’ll never find yourself in a bad relationship… but if you do, a little red flag goes off that says “something doesn’t feel right about this.”
But maybe that wasn’t your childhood. It may be hard to acknowledge, but maybe your parents fell short of this. Maybe they were unloving or had bad intentions. Or, perhaps more likely, maybe they were dealing with things – anything from physical or mental illness to poverty to divorce – that usurped all of the energy they wish they could devote to being the kinds of parents from the first category. It’s probably the case that your parents were doing the best they could, and this isn’t about attributing blame, but it still just wasn’t enough. Because of this, you had a lot of needs – physical, perhaps, but especially emotional – that went unmet.
And if you grew up in a family like this, now you have a puzzle to solve. The puzzle is, “how can I fix this thing that was lacking in my childhood?” So you find a partner who has the same challenges or shortcomings that your parents did, and you try to fix them – to help them overcome it. You couldn’t play this role for your parents – you were only a child, after all. But if you can do it for your partner, you’ll solve the problem that existed in your childhood, which will bring you closure and peace.
And this brings us to reason #2 that people seek out jerks…Being the hero feels good
Doesn’t it feel amazing to be so important to someone that they’ll change their ways for you? I’m not being sarcastic – of course that feels great! Everyone wants to be valued, and everyone wants to have a positive influence. But for some people, this can lead to really toxic relationship patterns where what they’re looking for is a project rather than a partner.
And all brands of media keep reinforcing this! Everyone from Jane Austen to Nicholas Sparks (not to mention every romantic comedy that’s hit movie theaters pretty much ever) loves to tell the story of the ragtag roustabout philanderer who loved the chase and treated women like objects until meeting that special woman who reformed him and turned him into a good guy. Tempting, yes?
It’s not just straight women who struggle with this, either. People of all genders and sexual orientations relish the idea that they could be special or important enough to change someone who’s troubled. Being someone’s hero, after all, is a great narrative.
But there are a few problems with this.
First, it rarely works.
Although I believe strongly that people can change (and as a therapist, I’m deeply invested in this idea), I don’t think that people change for *other* people. I’ll often hear clients and friends lament that after they left their ex-husband/ wife/ partner/ boyfriend/ girlfriend/ on-again-off-again-it’s-complicated-let’s-not-define-this-love-interest, that person met someone else and made all the changes they’d been hoping for for years. They say things like:
“I don’t understand. I always wanted him to travel, and he never would, but now that he’s with Alex, they’re traveling together all over the world.”
“All I wanted was for her to stop drinking, and it wasn’t until after we broke up that she did! Now Sam gets to enjoy the sober version of her that I waited for for years!”
But these people didn’t change for Alex or Sam. They experienced a major life change (the breakup with you) that led them to reexamine other aspects of their life and, somewhat frustratingly, they came to the conclusion that you were right all along – they should travel more or get sober. I almost never see clients make major life changes unless they’re internally motivated to do so.
Second, it’s a distraction from your own “stuff”.
If you feel compelled to save another person, it’s probably because you need the external validation of changing someone else… but the need for this validation is a strong indicator of problems with your self-esteem.
Let me qualify that: I use the phrase “self-esteem” because it’s a buzzword that resonates with a lot of people, but it’s a bit of a problematic concept. It’s not very well defined in psychological literature, and we tend to think of it culturally as “I know it when I see it/ feel it.” Because of the amorphous nature of this concept, I tend to focus more on:
- identity and sense of self
But regardless of which of these things is lacking, there’s a dearth somewhere. And trying to be a hero to your partner means you don’t have the energy left to work on the project of being a hero to yourself.
You find what you’re looking for
We have all of these culturally disseminated notions about relationships and gender that are really, really damaging. Some of them are:
- Everyone is a little bit deceptive in new relationships.
- All men are only interested in sex.
- All women are manipulative.
- Playing hard-to-get is the only way to keep a man interested.
- Caring about a woman’s feelings means you’re “whipped” or a “sissy”.
- Et cetera
And when you believe these things, you find people who reinforce them. I hear a lot of people say, “well aren’t all men jerks?” or “aren’t all women deceitful?” And the answer is a resounding NO.
If you’re walking down a busy street in Downtown Los Angeles, you will pass a few hundred people. Some of those people will reinforce your stereotypes and assumptions: men who are misogynistic, women who are vapid, and whatever else you assume. And if you’re looking for those things, you’ll notice them. This is called confirmation bias.
But walking down that same street is just about every kind of person you could imagine: sensitive, self-centered, smart, dumb, interesting, dull, athletic, lazy, goal-oriented, career-driven, sleeping in their parents’ basement.
And the people who don’t resonate with what you’ve already decided is the case? You’re likely to disregard them. Because they don’t jive with what you believe be true, you’ll likely never meet them.
Some Actionable Steps to Take
If any or all of the above resonate with you as you think about your dating life, here are some things you can do to change that:
Recognize patterns that come from your childhood and actively work to break them.
Acknowledge: This is my “dad stuff” or my “mom stuff”. When you start to see someone new, listen to the red flags that pop up in your head, quiet as they may be. Identify the people in your life who have really awesome healthy relationships, and talk to them about what makes their relationships so wonderful. If you want a handy starting point for what a healthy relationship looks like, check out my article about Gottman’s research on this subject.
Be your own hero.
I said this earlier in the article, but it’s true. If you’re looking for someone to save, start with yourself. Recognize the things that are missing in your life, and actively work to be the person you want to be. This is the healthiest way to have a superhero narrative in your life.
Talk to people you would normally disregard.
If you have a “type” that hasn’t served you well in the past, this is the best way to break free of that. Swipe right when you feel compelled to swipe left. Go on a second date with someone who seems nice even if you don’t feel a spark on the first date.
Ask for help.
If you’re local to my office and want some guidance, breaking these kinds of patterns is one of my favorite things to help people with. You can schedule a phone consultation or call me… or if you live far away or my style doesn’t really resonate with you, seek out another therapist who feels like a good fit. There’s no shame in needing some help figuring out these patterns. Sometimes you can’t see your own backside, and an outsider can see things more clearly.
Jennie Steinberg is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor based in Downtown Los Angeles. She is the founder of Through the Woods Therapy Center, a group of psychotherapists who are strength-based and use the principles of social justice to inform their work with clients. Jennie has written extensively about issues pertaining to mental health and wellness, feminism, LGBTQQIAPK+ issues, and living authentically. Her guiding philosophy in her work and her life is that if you’re not harming anyone and you feel good on the inside, you’re probably doing okay. You can find her via her website: Through the Woods Therapy Center, on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Yelp.