When I first started dating, I sought out boys that were the opposite of my father. My logic went like this – my parents divorced, therefor my father didn’t make a good husband, so I would be better off avoiding guys that mirrored my dad. And I soon fell in love with the man that would eventually become my husband.
It was only years later that I learned that by studiously avoiding certain characteristics. I inadvertently agreed upon other traits that were most decidedly unhealthy at best and criminal at worst. Traits that I was completely blind to at the time.
He was “Husband of the Year” to my face and a lying, cheating, stealing bigamist behind my back.
I’m not alone in giving my heart to someone who would ultimately be detrimental to me.
Why is it that even the most educated and emotionally intelligent people fall in love with people that are bad for them?
Habit– We all have a tendency to do what we have done. Mirror what we have seen. If you grew up in an abusive household, you are more likely to find yourself partnered to an abuser. If you were parented by an alcoholic, you will be drawn to the same. If you have a propensity for the lost boys, you will continue to blindly seek them out until you make an effort to break the habit. Overcoming a habit takes mindful attention; before you can change your patterns, you must become aware of your patterns.
Sunk Cost Fallacy– Just because you have put time and energy into nurturing a relationship, does not mean that the relationship should last. Sometimes, by the time the early infatuation has faded and we realize that somebody is a mistake for us, we feel like we have already invested too much into the relationship to bring it to an end. This is often compounded by a reluctance to admit to ourselves or others that we chose poorly. It’s better to be embarrassed for a moment than treated poorly for a lifetime.
Sliding In– You meet somebody. You’re attracted to them and you have a good time together. So you agree to a second date. And then a third. Before you know it, you’ve moved in together after justifying that it makes sense to save on rent. And then marriage just seems like the next inevitable step, even if neither one of you have actually given it much thought. The person that made for a great first date may not necessarily be one that makes for a great partner.
Low Self – Esteem – Maybe you feel like you’re not good enough and that you deserve someone who treats you poorly. Or you find your worth through helping others and so you’re drawn to those that need fixing or enabling. When our self-esteem is low, we inadvertently project it, attracting people that are also lacking in confidence or, even worse, pulling in people that prey upon the weak. A vicious cycle can begin where the person with low self-esteem is drawn to people that use manipulation and emotional abuse to further lower self-worth. How people treat you really does start with how you treat yourself. You must create a healthy relationship with yourself before you can entertain one with someone else.
Feeling Lonely – The distress of being alone is one of the great universal human fears. And we will go to great lengths to avoid it. Even as far as getting with and staying with somebody that isn’t right for us with the belief that somebody is better than nobody. The great irony here is that feeling isolated and misunderstood within a relationship is infinitely more painful than actually being alone.
Potential – We often fall in love with a person’s potential rather than their reality. We see their inherent gifts and believe that if they simply made some basic changes, that they would be better. Both for them, and for us. Of course, the reality is that you can never change another person, only your response to them.
Rationalize – Their behavior will change once we get married/have a child/change jobs/move to the new house. They may treat me badly sometimes, but they are a great parent/provider/respected community member. I know they’re not good for me, but I need to stay because I can’t be alone/handle my own finances/find anybody else. Consistently defending somebody’s behavior (whether your own or your partner’s) is a sign that something is amiss and you are not yet willing to face it.
How can we move on from the damaging relationships and learn to give our hearts to those who deserve it?
- Focus less on what made your former partner bad and more on why you were drawn to them.
- Look for patterns in your past relationships – are you replaying roles from your childhood or consistently picking the same kind of ill-suited partner?
- Are you putting up with consistently poor treatment? Work at setting and maintaining boundaries.
- Spend time with people who celebrate your gifts and cherish you as you are. Let their love help you develop your own sense of worth.
- Forgive yourself for the poor choices you have made. Rather than beat yourself up, strive to learn from your mistakes.
- Understand that just because you made a poor choice, you can still make better choices.
During my own divorce, I was able to reconnect with my father. And I discovered that he is an amazing man with many traits that I would love to have in a partner. And so the second time around, I sought out a husband that had those characteristics and who treats me well not only to my face, but also behind my back. A man that challenges me to become better while celebrating my strengths. This time, I fell in love with somebody who is good for me.
And I have faith that you can do the same.