Albert Einstein, as legend would have it, said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
What would the genius physicist make of our mating habits? Find a type. Date that type. Lose that type. Find another of that type. Try dating that one. Lose that one, too.
It should to some of us, say relationship experts, who have noticed a revolving-door phenomenon in many of our lives, wherein we attract, date (and sometimes marry) people with the same general personality traits over and over, even when those traits and our traits are clearly a mismatch.
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Why do we do it? And, more important, how do we stop?
“We’re drawn to what we know, even if what we know isn’t the best option,” said Boston-based psychotherapist and couples counselor Abby Rodman. “Some of it is about comfort, even when that comfort is to our detriment. Familiar terrain is comforting. You know your way around it, so it’s more attractive.”
For some of us, this means dating a series of introverts, even though their shy tendencies drive us up a wall. For others, it takes on a more sinister tone: habitually partnering with abusers, philanderers, addicts.
“In many people it’s because the energy of our wounds attracts a similar or complementary energy,” says psychotherapist Avril Carruthers, author of “Freedom From Toxic Relationships: Moving On from the Family, Work and Relationship Issues That Bring You Down” (Tarcher/Penguin).
“A victim energy might attract a rescuer or a perpetrator, and we can get caught in a game of believing we need to be looked after or need to be needed,” she said. “Sometimes, when we feel the need to rescue someone, it’s because we are not looking to our own needs, which might make us feel weak or powerless, but we’re taking the more empowering position of helping someone else.
“Either way,” she continued, “no one’s needs are met in this unconscious game, because the rescuer gives help to others that they really need themselves.”
Even when this dynamic fails to make us happy – or even fulfill our basic needs – we fall back into it over and over.
“If we cannot step back and look at this pattern with some detachment, seeing the energy that attracts us in the other person, we are more or less condemned to repeat the pattern,” Carruthers said.
Some of these habits begin in childhood, Rodman contends.
“We’re not just bringing ourselves into our relationships,” she said. “We’re bringing our historical knowledge of relationships with us. The relationship paradigms we saw as children greatly inform who we choose.”
Perhaps your father was rarely home, Rodman suggested, so you’re familiar with, and therefore drawn to, a partner who is emotionally or physically unavailable.
Or we seek out people who we perceive to offer the opposite paradigm – a partner who is always physically present – without realizing the underlying deficiencies are still at play.
“Now you’ve found a person who’s home all the time and is present but is emotionally unavailable,” Rodman said. “You’ve traded one kind of unavailable for another kind, but you think, ‘This person is sitting here in my living room, so it’s different.’”
But it’s not different. It’s the same emotional unavailability you’ve known all your life, which is why it didn’t send up red flags the first (or second or third) time around.
“We think we’ve traded up, but we’re on the same treadmill,” she said.
Filling perceived gaps in ourselves
Sometimes we keep seeking out personality traits in our partners that we believe we lack, says couples counselor Resmaa Menakem, author of “Rock The Boat: How to Use Conflict to Heal and Deepen Your Relationship” (Hazelden).
People who have a hard time speaking up for themselves seek out loud, blustery types. People who can’t vocalize their needs gravitate toward people who make their own needs loud and clear.
“They see power or control as skills they don’t have, so they bring my-way-or-the-highway people into their lives,” he said. “And they just keep getting run over.”
So we’ve established that this is a lousy system. But how do we find the exit?
“The first step is always awareness,” Carruthers said. “Discomfort, pain or outright despair can alert us to the fact that this is not a reciprocal relationship, but that we are either the only one making the effort or the only one who can empathize with the other’s needs. When we recognize the pattern, we might be able to step back and see similarities between relationships in the present and in the past.”
Rodman, too, emphasizes self-awareness.
“You have to know how and why you became the partner you are,” she said. “Who are you in relationships, and what do you bring to the relationship table?”
Gifts, talents, flaws, needs and all.
“Then you have to let go of the fear,” Rodman said. “The fear you won’t meet someone else. The fear that you won’t measure up. The fear that you really don’t deserve a better relationship. That’s when you start tolerating things you shouldn’t.”
When you’ve come to know yourself and faced your fears, you can stop accepting the latest round of relationship turmoil as your lot in life, instead turning painful times into a moment of reckoning.
“A time of reflection when we are hurting is essential,” Carruthers said. “We need to increase awareness of what we might have done, even unconsciously, to allow a return to old patterns of relating.
“The energy that attracts us to unhealthy relationships is often unconscious, buried in the past, our childhood conditioning or other traumatic relationships,” she said. “Only awareness and bringing ourselves constantly into the present can give us other options.”