Why You Keep Winding Up in the Same Relationship

fear of intimacyIf we were asked, as an exercise, to craft a personal ad detailing what we were looking for in a partner, it may read something like this:

Seeking someone who is kind and patient, independent yet loving, laid back, yet energetic. Someone who is confident, but isn’t afraid to laugh at him- or herself. Someone attractive, but down to earth. Someone who is up for anything, but knows what he or she wants.

What we wind up finding in a partner can look very different. This may be a better ad:

Seeking someone who is moody and unpredictable; aloof, yet jealous; low energy, yet temperamental. Someone who has low self-esteem, and no sense of humor when it comes to his or her flaws. Someone who concentrates too much on his or her appearance and often feels insecure. Someone who likes to control the situation and changes his or her mind about goals for themselves and their relationships.

When it comes to how we behave in our relationships, a person can rarely be reduced to the black-and-white character outline of a newspaper ad. Every human has strengths and weaknesses, and all of their traits (good and bad) are bound to surface in the emotionally invested space that makes up an intimate relationship.

Every individual is diverse and complex and carries with them a unique set of baggage from their past that impacts and informs their close relationships. Given this complexity, one is often left to wonder, “Why do I keep choosing the same partner? Why, no matter how many new criteria I mentally create, do I keep winding up in a slightly varied version of the same, not-so-great relationship?”

The answer for every person is to first look at ourselves. The experiences that make us who we are also influence who we look for in a partner. While most of us claim to be looking for true love, real compatibility and no drama, there are often unconscious influences — thoughts and behaviors leading us to just the opposite. One influential factor is that many of us seek partners who help us stay within our comfort zone, even if that zone turns out to not be all that desirable. People seek what is familiar. If our past were filled with feelings of rejection or inadequacy, we are likely to seek scenarios in which we feel the same way as adults.

Often, we look for partners who reinforce existing views we have of ourselves. For example, if we had a parent who was not always emotionally available to us, or who was inconsistent in offering us warmth and affection, we may think of ourselves as unlovable on some level. When we look for a partner, we may be initially drawn to someone whose attention makes us feel good about ourselves. Eventually, we may start to notice that this person is resistant to getting close and can be disregarding. Even as we are tormented by feelings of rejection, we often fail to realize that the very reason we were so drawn to this person may be because we sensed that they support those all-to-familiar feelings of being inadequate and undeserving.

If we find ourselves on the other side of this scenario, feeling trapped or clung to by our partner, we may want to consider how much we were intruded on as kids. Did we have a parent or caretaker who was overbearing and imposed on us for attention or reassurance? Are we now reacting (or overreacting) to our partner, because he or she is looking to us for similar qualities?

While we aim to find partners who complement us in a positive way, we often wind up finding people whose opposing traits can rouse negative dynamics between us. For example, how many couples do we know, where one person does the talking, and the other stays quiet? While one person tells the stories and attracts attention, the other acts as a listener and falls into the background.

A married man I know once told me a story about how he and his wife had mutually acknowledged that in the course of their relationship, he had become very passive and she very controlling. He refused to make any decisions, and she insisted on making all decisions. As an exercise, they decided that for a week he would make every decision, and she would go along with it. The very first night, they got in the car to go out to dinner, and as soon as they got to the driveway, the husband hit the brakes and the car came to halt. He found himself literally paralyzed, as he waited for his wife to tell him which way to turn.

Instances like these are indicative of a larger problem for couples. We frequently choose people who fill out our personalities, then resent them for the very traits that make them our “other half.” The wife in the above scenario resented her husband for being weak and indecisive, yet she refused to give up control. Her husband felt victimized by her demanding patterns, but refused to voice his opinions.

Even when we choose partners who complement us positively, we run the risk of eventually distorting them or provoking them to become someone who we are less compatible with. This is often not the case when we first get involved with someone. In the beginning of a relationship, we naturally step out of our comfort zones, forcing ourselves outside our own heads and into an interaction with someone unfamiliar. The scenario of getting to know a stranger forces us to push ourselves, to be our best selves, and to treat the other person with respect and interest.

As we get closer, our defenses start to arise. We start to feel more vulnerable, and influences from our past start to seep in. We must be wary in this stage of how we can distort our partners. We may start to insert hidden meaning into their words that suit a way we feel about ourselves. We may start to project qualities onto them or exaggerate characteristics they possess.

For example, a friend of mine recently told me how upset she was when her husband wouldn’t commit to going away for the weekend. He thought it would be nice to have time at home alone with her. She instantly interpreted his resistance as a rejection. What she came to realize in the course of our conversation was that, while her husband did have trouble committing to certain plans, he had every intention and desire to spend the entire weekend with her, a reality that clearly contradicted her assumption that he was rejecting her.

In addition, to distorting our partners, we sometimes provoke them into giving us a certain response. For example, my friend who wanted to go on a weekend getaway recognized that, although her husband prefers to live more spontaneously and not spend too much time on practicalities, she would often insist on talking to him about travel plans, home renovations and financial matters well in advance of when was necessary. She soon realized that she didn’t even care all that much about these things, but something was compelling her to push her husband away by bringing up topics that would distance him from her. By “nagging” at her husband, not only was she preventing more personal and meaningful interactions between them, but she was provoking him to lose interest in certain activities, which then made her feel critical of him.

We must always be aware of how we select, provoke and distort our partners to fill roles that recreate our past. The better we understand ourselves, the better able we are to choose partners who support us just as we support them, as the unique, complex, and independent individuals we are. We can then interrupt patterns that would prevent us from “seeing” our partners — misinterpreting their actions to fit an old feeling about ourselves. Lastly, we can then be careful not to provoke our partners to act out in ways that hurt us, them and naturally, the relationship. By remaining wary of these negative influences, we give our relationships the best chance possible of lasting long and making us happy.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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I can understand the idea of recreating a comfort zone even if that is actually a cycle of abusive behaviours… I’ve been there, realized it, and analyzed it a bit on my personal blog after I ended my relationship with an abusive narcissist last May. It’s something that I find a good portion of logic in, and can comprehend. But can you by any means explain why I seem to choose -at first glance, and on automatic- men who may not look similar outwardly, may come from very different backgrounds and societal circumstances, and even cultures and countries, but, I find out during the first date that they almost all are Tauruses, and born between the 30th of April and 10th of May? Two of my exes actually had the exact birthday (1st of May), with a couple of years difference. I don’t much believe in astrology, and I don’t ask people’s signs usually. Only when I’m actually dating someone, after several times we might have met on other occassions etc, I ask about personal details like birthdays and signs. I’ve taken a vow that next time I date someone if he tells me he’s a Taurus, I’ll immediately up and leave and never look back. This is illogical, and incomprehensible and yet it happens to me. I don’t go looking for them, it’s either some sick cosmic joke, or… I don’t know what else it could be. Mind, I’m not a silly teenager, I’m almost 40 years old, a psychology graduate, and mother of a 6-year-old. I am not easily spooked or convinced of things and gullible only in certain matters of people’s kindness etc. And yet this happens to me, in all honesty and sanity. [and i’ve commented on the same article twice, how superflous of me…]


Hi Octarian,

What a quirky situation you’ve found yourself in. Granted, I rolled my eyes when you said “astrology” but I understand the wonderment. As I’m sure you know, most in the field of Psychology don’t often pay attention to pseudoscience and if they do, it’s either not talked about or it’s dismissed immediately. As unsatisfying an answer as this may be, that your men have all been Taurus’ is probably a coincidence. There are seemingly an infinite number of coincidences in the world that defy rational explanation (else they wouldn’t be coincidences, non?)

Since you have an active, open mind, there’s a book I recommend to a lot of people. It’s by Dan Millman and it’s titled “The Life You Were Born to Live.” While it doesn’t address your particular relationship question, you might find it quite insightful and very, very helpful. Also, you may want to explore the Myers Briggs (you sound like an intuitive thinker). And check out the Enneagram, as well. The latter two recommendations can be found at any local bookstore or library. Millman’s book may or may not be but do your best to search for it. I think it will be worth your while.
I’ll check back every so often to see if you’ve responded. I’m curious as to what you come up with.
Best of luck!


Hi. I came across your website as I’m searching for personal growth. I’m currently amidst a divorce from the most social talkative man that won’t talk to me. Problems in marriag: makes decisions with his sister/family; literally won’t talk to me, I will text or email and no response; won’t interact w me or daughter; lazy-won’t participate in family things or helps me with our daughter; gawks at every strange woman walking or crossing his path; doesn’t compliment me or appreciate anything that I do.
He tells his family that I’m bossy (b/c I ask him to do things/help). If you ask him how to do something or where something is in the house he has no clue yet he does everything. I have been very clear on what I want so it’s not that I’m having him guess. This man walks behind me so that he can check women out and says that’s what they are there for. He laughs when I confront him. But has no room to compliment me, his wife, the woman he said he would respect and take care of and love. It’s so bad that he’s in a trance; it’s as if he was released from prison and never saw a woman. When I was 7.5 months preg with my second baby I felt like a whale. We were walking on the beach with my sis so she held my forearm so I wouldn’t fall. He joined in to not look bad. This lady in a black bikini was walking towards us…he dropped my hand to look at her as she passed us. That’s but one example because on a minute by minute basis that scenario replays itself. It’s degrading, hurtful, humiliating, and disrespectful. The nerve. I put up with a selfish egotistical jerk for so long. He is all act and when around others pretending we are happy and he’s mr helpful when in reality he is lazy and does nothing unless I ask. When we visit his family he is constantly helping them w/o being asked. It seems as if everyone deserves his help but me, everyone deserves his stares except me. When we dated he was so doting and I could talk to him about things I had never been able to talk to anyone about. Phone calls lasted 3-4 hours. Three months into the honeymoon it all came to a crash. His truths came out. I found myself crying myself to sleep for 2 years. He started gawking at women and left me home alone. He “works” from home and stays in his office ALL day. No interaction. When my daughter blessed us with her presence he carried thag behavior onto her as well. I have to bribe her to go with him so that I can have a break. I cook, clean, wash laundry and dishes, grocery and gift shop. Everything. He’s in his office watching tv, on Internet ( also looking at women), hobbies, and doing things for his family. He didn’t get the concept that I’m the one that he should help because his family has him doing calls, research, etc. he never got the memo that women want attention for them not other women. It’s bewildering how I chose so wrong. How he was the COMPLETE opposite of who he PRETENDED to be. I grew up w/o parental affection because they were always working, dealt w/ the trouble makers and they themselves were raised to be unaffectionate. So reading this article showed me why I chose him-he’s familiar. He’s unattentive, unavailable. Please, how do I reprogram myself? How do I attract what I truly deserve and want: attentive, respectful, family man who helps me and listens to me. I want dialogue!

I emailed him the petition for divorce in May and now entering Sept w/o once discussing it. He puts up no fight or resistance to divorce. I’m beyond upset because this is who I brought into my life and my daughters. He’s disappointing as a man, husband, and father. Please, give me advise on how to break this cycle so that my daughters’ “familiarity” isn’t distant or emotionally unavailable. I dont want her to subconsciously lean towards this. I want for her to have a man that has eyes for her and respects her and loves her enough to realize that he shouldn’t be selfish and have her do it all.
He waited 16 yrs for me and when he finally gets me, he does this. Why? All I am is a maid, cook, and nanny. His uncle told him not to let s woman tell him what to do. So as you can see who he aims to please that might give you insight to my “role” in his life yet he waited for me???? He had never been in a relationship b/c no one compared to me..,.how does that translate to unavailable, unattached man/father!??
Thank you

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