Attachment

Do People Choose Romantic Partners Similar to Their Parent?

How imprinting and attachment influence our choice of romantic partner.

Posted Mar 10, 2019

“My husband is an alcoholic, just like my father.” —Anonymous

"My mother was a strong and tough woman, so I tend to be attracted to strong and tough women.” —Anonymous

“My boyfriend has my father’s charm and creativity, as well as his irresponsibility.” —Anonymous

Have you ever noticed someone dating or marrying a partner with characteristics similar to that person’s father or mother (for better and/or for worse)? Have you ever had this experience in your own romantic relationships?

What causes some people to date and marry a partner like their parent(s)? Although the answer to this question can be complex, below are a few possible key factors, with references from my books: Seven Keys to Long-Term Relationship Success and How to Get Over a Breakup: Keys to Healing and Happiness Again.

According to psychologist and researcher John Gottman, mate attraction and selection may be either hormonal or the potential result of a phenomenon known as imprinting. This theory suggests that we can become psychologically conditioned to being attracted to a distinct parental personality type, with the accompanying need for love, by the time we’re 18 months old. This “imprinting” is the result of a combination of factors, including, perhaps most importantly, how we received (or were deprived of) love, intimacy, and security from our parent(s) or primary guardian.

Imprinting may also influence an individual’s relationship attachment tendencies. Based on the works of Bartholomew and Horowitz, etc., there are four relationship attachment styles: secure (stable love), anxious-preoccupied (unstable love), dismissive-avoidant (absent and/or distant love), and fearful-avoidant (fearful and/or painful love). Here’s a general overview of a few key characteristics of each attachment style:

1. Secure Attachment Style (Stable Love)

Individuals with a strong, secure attachment style manifest at least a number of the following traits on a regular basis:

  • Capable of sending and receiving healthy expressions of intimacy.
  • Capable of drawing healthy, appropriate, and reasonable boundaries when required.
  • Feel secure being alone as well as with a companion.
  • Tend to have a favorable perception of relationships and personal interactions.
  • More likely to handle interpersonal difficulties in stride.

2. Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style (Unstable Love)

Individuals with a strong anxious-preoccupied attachment style tend to manifest at least several of the following traits on a regular basis:

  • Inclined to feel more nervous and less secure about relationships.
  • Inclined to have many stressors in relationships, such as neediness, possessiveness, jealousy, control, mood swings, obsessiveness, etc.
  • Requires constant stroking of love and validation to feel secure and accepted.
  • Dislike being without company, and struggle being by oneself.
  • History of emotionally turbulent relationships.

3. Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style (Absence of Love, or Highly Reserved, Distant Love)

Individuals with a strong dismissive-avoidant attachment style tend to manifest at least several of the following traits on a regular basis:

  • Highly self-directed and self-sufficient. Independent behaviorally and emotionally.
  • Avoid true intimacy, which makes one vulnerable and may subject the dismissive-avoidant to emotional obligations.
  • Desire freedom physically and emotionally.
  • Other priorities in life often supersede interpersonal relationship. 
  • May have commitment issues.

4. Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style (Fearful and/or Painful Love)

Individuals with a strong fearful-avoidant attachment style tend to manifest at least several of the following traits on a regular basis:

  • Often associated with highly challenging life experiences, such as grief, abandonment, and/or abuse.
  • Desire, but simultaneously resist, intimacy. Much inner conflict.
  • Struggle with having confidence in and relying on others.
  • Fear annihilation, physically and/or emotionally, in loving, intimate situations.
  • Analogous to the anxious-preoccupied style; inclined to feel more nervous and less secure about relationships.
  • Analogous to the dismissive-avoidant style; may have commitment issues.

Most people have various degrees of the four attachment styles, which may evolve over time.

Similar to imprinting, we may internalize from a young age the dominant form of parental attachment style in our lives. This psychological and social conditioning can then become our subconscious blueprint for mate attraction and selection.

Imprinting and attachment theory may explain, at least in part, why some people tend to attract (and often marry) partners who possess certain attributes of one or both of their parents. Since no parent is perfect, one’s imprinting and formative attachment style are often a combination of desirable as well as challenging traits.

Can negative and challenging imprinting and attachment be transformed, so that one begins to attract and enable healthier relationships? It is definitely possible. Self-awareness, a strong willingness to learn and grow, and the courage to seek professional help when needed are some of the most important keys to success. For those who are able to break the chain of negative imprinting and attachment, a healthy, secure, and truly loving relationship can become a lasting possibility. See references below.

© 2018 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.

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References

Ni, Preston. 7 Keys to Long-Term Relationship Success. PNCC. (2013)

Bartholomew, K., Horowitz, L.M. Attachment Styles Among Young Adults: a Test of a Four-Category Model. J Pers Soc Psychol. (1991)

Gottman, John; Gottman, Julie Schwartz; Abrams, Douglas; Abrams, Rachel Carlton. The Man's Guide to Women. New York: Rodale. (2016)

Pietromonaco P.R., Barrett L.F. Working Models of Attachment and Daily Social Interactions. J Pers Soc Psychol. (1997)

Simpson, J.A., Collins, W.A., Salvatore, J.E. The Impact of Early Interpersonal Experience on Adult Romantic Relationship Functioning: Recent Findings from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. (2011)