Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Unresolved Trauma Attracts the Sharks in the Dating Pool

Address old wounds before jumping into the dating pool.

Imagine that your car breaks down in a remote spot known to be close to a federal prison. Your cell phone isn't picking up a signal, so you are thrust on the mercy of a passing driver. In this scenario, would it be wiser to solicit help from another driver yourself or to sit in the car and wait for someone to notice your state of need and offer to help?

It would generally be wiser to take an active role in picking the target of your request for help. If you decide to request help actively, you could try to screen for certain factors that might indicate that a particular person would be relatively safe to hail—for example, a man or woman who appears to be riding with his or her young children.

Even if you picked at random, without looking for indicators of potentially safe helpers, you would be statistically less likely to pick a sociopath relative to the likelihood that a sociopath might pick you when he or she witnesses your obvious state of vulnerability.

As threat expert Gavin De Becker explains, “The possibility that you'll inadvertently select a predatory criminal for whom you are the right victim type is very remote."* In other words, if you were to wait passively in your car for someone to help you, you would most likely attract one of two types of people—either good Samaritans or opportunistic sociopaths drawn to your state of need.

For individuals with unresolved traumas, the mate-selection process often carries a double risk. That is, unhealed wounds of past trauma in your life lead to a higher likelihood that unsafe people will pick you, and if you actively pick a partner, it is much more likely that you will end up with an unsafe person.

In other words, if you have experienced trauma, it is often true that you will unintentionally emit certain signals and behaviors that chum the water for the psychopathic sharks in the dating pool. Part of the “chum” in this analogy would be body language.

Research shows that there are differences in the body language of those identified by anti-social prisoners to be target victims and those who are not judged to be easy prey.** Anti-social, dominating, power-abusing individuals have a strong radar for those who are impulsive, those who do not respect themselves, those who are desperate to find love at any cost—basically anyone who will play opposite them in a submissive role for any number of reasons.

I’ve intentionally selected sharks for my analogy here because the behavioral patterns of sharks can show up in interactions between those in the dating pool. That is, before a shark attacks, it first circles and then bumps into its potential prey, feeling out its possible victim before going in for the kill.

In the same way, sharks in the dating pool will bump up against those they are getting to know, putting out feelers in the form of little tests to gauge the potential for dominating someone. There are many, many forms that these tests can take. Here are three examples:

1. A person who shows blatant disrespect by flaking out on plans at the last minute with no reasonable explanation (testing whether the other person will allow him or herself to be treated disrespectfully)...

2. A person who asks someone he or she has just met on the internet to “come visit for a weekend” (testing things like impulsiveness and how much the other person is willing to invest in a relationship that has barely begun, which may be an indicator of desperation or low self-esteem).

3. A person who pressures someone into physical intimacy early in a relationship, before trust or safety has been well-established over a lengthy period of time (testing level of self-respect, impulsivity, desperation, etc.)...

A shark gains information about the potential to take advantage of someone by observing how that person responds to these kinds of tests. So, if you’ve ever met a captivating person who suddenly dropped out of your life with no explanation, one possibility is that a shark in the dating pool may have taken a pass because you did not show yourself to be easy prey.

Even if your goal is to have a healthy love relationship, if you have experienced certain types of past traumas, you may have a difficult time recognizing sharks when they present themselves as suitors, because somehow they "feel like home." If we are sometimes drawn like moths to a flame to potentially abusive partners, could there be any logical reason for this pattern?

Some have argued that we select certain partners in order to re-stage trauma scenarios that mirror what we have experienced in the past, presumably with the hope of getting a different outcome. For example, the son of a verbally abusive mother will often end up with a verbally abusive wife. So, maybe this is an attempt to re-pave over an old trauma in order to emotionally correct a deep psychic wound? Whether or not this is the underlying psychological drive, the end result of picking someone you hope to change almost never leads to greater wholeness and emotional well-being.

Ultimately, in relationships, as in politics, if you ignore your history, you will tend to repeat it, so if you have not addressed and achieved healing from your trauma experience(s), doing so in a safe relationship with a treating professional is recommended as a first priority.


*De Becker, G. (1997). The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence. New York, NY: Dell Publishing (a division of Random House, Inc.), p. 65.

**Grayson, B. and Stein, M.I. (1981) Attracting Assault: Victims' Nonverbal Cues. Journal of Communication 31 (1): 68-75.

More from Shauna H Springer Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today