Narcissists, Bullies, and Dance-Away Lovers

Five ways to break the pattern of bad relationships.

Posted Dec 30, 2019

Source: Shutterstock

Some people seem fated to be consistently unlucky in love.

“I’m a narcissist magnet,” my client Amy observed not long ago. “What is it about me? Every time, I start a new relationship with such hope and every time, it ends up pretty much the same way: the guy turns out to be a narcissist. What’s going on that makes me keep finding these guys?”

Jeremy’s romantic scenario is similar: the women he dates tend to end up being controlling, even bullying, offering variations of verbal abuse, nagging, and belittling. And he is beginning to wonder if such relationship dynamics are inevitable and if there is anything he might be doing to trigger such behavior.

Lisa is noticing a distressing pattern of love mismatched. “I’m really attracted to men who are high achievers,” she says. “I find them exciting. But I’m always disappointed because they don’t have as much time for me as I’d like. I have these dreams of weekends lounging on the patio drinking mimosas and having deep conversations. But all they want to do is work! The guys I date don’t take much time off on weekends and, so far, they’ve been total commitment-phobes. Despite their initial interest in me, their work always always comes first.”

Like Amy, Jeremy and Lisa, you, too, may be wondering why your romantic history keeps repeating itself and why you keep falling for impossible or unavailable partners.

A major clue may be your attachment style. Seminal studies by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth identified attachment styles in the context of relationships between infants and a primary caregiver/parent, as secure, anxious, avoidant and anxious-avoidant.

Many people are a combination of these attachment styles, since parents are not generally perfectly consistent and babies come in a variety of personalities and temperaments that may impact the bonding/attachment process.

Attachment styles have also been studied in adults. In general, those with a predominately secure attachment style are comfortable with both intimacy and independence, enjoying closeness with others are well as time alone. 

Those with an anxious attachment style are anxious about the relationship, sometimes idealizing the other and depending on the relationship to boost their self-esteem. When they are involved with a person who has an avoidant attachment style—the commitment-phobic, dance-away lover who feels they don't really need closeness, intimacy, or emotional support from another—the anxious partner tries even harder to form a bond and hang in with the relationship. Someone with a secure attachment style would be more likely to respond to an avoidant partner by moving on.

Those who are anxious-avoidant may have an early history of abuse and/or neglect. They may have difficulties relating to others at all and yearn for both intimacy and independence, leading to conflicted, dysfunctional relationships.

Our attractions to others are often tied not only to attachment styles but also revisiting themes and characteristics of parents. The matches we find are not usually exact replicas of our parents or caregivers but may share some characteristics. For example, Lisa, who is attracted to men who are too preoccupied with their work to give her the attention she craves, grew up with an alcoholic father and a distant and depressed mother. She is conscientious about avoiding partners with drinking or obvious mental health problems but recreates the loneliness of her childhood by finding, again and again, men whose ambition and devotion to their work make them unavailable to her.

Recent studies have found that, not only do we tend to have romantic relationships that echo our pasts, but also our romantic partners tend to have a pattern of similarities. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that people do tend to have romantic “types” and that a new romantic partner will often share the personality traits of previous partners, whether these traits are positive or painful. Lead researcher Yoobin Park noted that even when people have made a conscious decision to date someone different from previous partners, there is a tendency to end up with a new love who has striking similarities to ex-partners.

However, you’re not condemned to bad relationships later in life if your beginnings were less than ideal. What happened to you back then matters less now than how you deal with it and your openness to change.

What can you do to grow past a string of bad relationships when you realize—despite your resolve to steer clear of dates that remind you of your not-so-dear-old dad or your critical, distant mom—you’re revisiting your past with alarming regularity?

  1. Stop labeling others and look inward. After a string of romantic disappointments, labeling all men as jerks or narcissists or all women as nagging harpies or clinging ninnies incapable of mature love is an easy, but ineffective way out of this serial misery. Look inward at your own attraction pattern. How is this recreating your distant past, despite your wishes to escape to a more loving reality? If, for example, you find yourself invariably attracted to men unavailable due to marriage, work schedules, or sexual orientation, take a deep breath and ask yourself: “Why?” You might opt for therapy to explore what is driving your painful, even destructive pattern of romantic attachments. We're not talking blame or finger-pointing here, but beginning an exploration of why you opt for the same unsatisfying relationships over and over again.
  2. Substitute common sense for “chemistry.” What seems like magical chemistry may be simply the lure of the familiar. Counter familiar patterns by doing something different: focus on reciprocity in your new relationship and see what happens; make time for your own needs and your own friends; avoid past patterns of behavior on your part -- like giving without an expectation of receiving love or attention, focusing solely on him or her to the exclusion of others in your life. Changing your own behavior can give you important clues about how this relationship will work -- or not. A narcissistic lover may lose interest quickly if he or she doesn't have your undivided attention and devotion. A bully may seek another target when you refuse to fall into the familiar victim pattern. Remember that you may not be able to change another's behavior, but you can change your own. And that can make a real difference in your relationships.
  3. Take time with your commitments. Whirlwind romances can bring emotional chaos as that new love who seemed so perfect turns into yet another narcissist. Narcissists are often charming at the outset and give the relationship a lot of attention, seeking your love and admiration. But once they’ve won you over, the relationship may change dramatically as you feel increasingly invisible, unappreciated and alone. Instead of rushing into a promising new love relationship, take time to build a friendship that includes reciprocity, transparency and caring. Taking time to build a friendship may not have the high of a romantic rush, but may have much happier results long-term.
  4. Be open to new kinds of partners. Convince yourself that you will work for and deserve healthy relationships. Don’t be so quick to dismiss another as “not my type.” Pay attention to how you feel when you’re with this person. He or she may not act the way you've come to expect. The dynamic between you may feel quite different. And, with time, that difference may delight you. For example, Lisa might come to appreciate and love a man who isn't so driven professionally, but who enjoys hiking with her, taking fun weekend trips or simply relaxing, sipping mimosas on the patio. The choice isn't between someone who is a professional superman and someone who is an unmotivated slacker. There are plenty of men and women that value balance in their lives, giving high priority to personal happiness and leisure as well as to their careers. There are lovers who value self-sufficiency in a partner as well as intimacy. There are people out there who don't fit the familiar patterns of your past, supportive rather than critical, giving rather than self-involved, healthy rather than addicted. If you allow yourself to see past your old attractions to the allure of someone with a healthy life balance that mirrors what you would like yourself, you may open your heart to a whole new love experience.
  5. Grow to become a more secure person and partner. You deserve to be loved, to be cherished, and to be happy. If you've been settling for or even seeking out relationships that offer you much less, it may be due to low self-worth rooted in your past. Work on being good to yourself, taking time for reflection, healthy habits, and supportive, healthy friendships. Value your own time, your own beliefs, your right to be treated with kindness and respect. Know that you have a right to speak up, to ask for what you need, and to be heard. You aren't a half looking for another to make you whole. You're enough as you are. You matter. Knowing and truly believing this can change your love life immeasurably.

To illustrate, one client—I'll call her Ellie—told me:

"I had this attraction to tragically flawed men. I married two alcoholic drug addicts I thought I could save. After my second divorce, I realized that I was trying to save my long-deceased addict father and that I could get my savior needs met in my work as a nurse and come home to peace and quiet and a new partner who is neither tragic nor deeply flawed. I would have labeled him as boring in the bad old days. But he looks wonderful to me now."


Yoobin Park, Geoff MacDonald, Consistency between individuals' past and present romantic partners own reports of their personalities. PNAS, June 25, 2019, 116(26) 12793-12797.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Attachment, New York: Basic Books.

Ainsworth, M.D.S, Blehar, M.C., Waters, E & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: a psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.