Are You Drawn to the Same "Type" of Partner, Over and Over?

If you're determined to seek a different type of person, here's what could help.

Posted Jul 27, 2019

 Wesner Rodrigues/Pexels
Source: Wesner Rodrigues/Pexels

Some years ago, one of my patients—a 50ish woman who’d been having an affair with a business associate—remarked to me that she was starting to feel tired and bored with him. "Why?" I asked. She replied, “I’m realizing that he’s very much like my husband. Same personality!”

No surprise, according to some new research. A large-scale, multi-year study found that you tend to seek out relationships with the same type of person—over and over again. And, even when you’re determined to seek someone different from your previous relationship—this time around. Sound familiar?

This study was conducted in a unique way, to reveal more accurate findings. Let’s take a look at what it found. Then, we’ll consider what may help if you’ve concluded that your previous partner wasn’t a good match—perhaps because of personality, attitudes, or personal “issues.”

The research was conducted by the University of Toronto, and found that people often do decide they want to find a different kind of person when a relationship ends. But the data showed a strong tendency to date a similar personality, nevertheless.

According to the lead author Yoobin Park, "there was a “significant consistency in the personalities of an individual's romantic partners … (and) the effect is more than just a tendency to date someone similar to yourself."

The study examined both current and past partners’ descriptions of themselves, along with a number of personality traits. Overall, the responses showed that the current partners described themselves in ways that were similar to their past partners. This study was unique in that it didn’t rely on people’s recollection of their previous partners’ personalities, but rather on direct reports from the partners.

Left unanswered by the research, of course, is what may draw people to the same kind of person over and over? Park speculated that some might simply repeat how they habitually related to their previous partner—even if it did not promote a positive outcome, long-term. The study was based on 332 current and past partners and was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A clinical perspective can shed more light. We see both men and women repeat old patterns because, for example, their own unresolved conflicts and dysfunctions remain unconscious and therefore re-enacted in one failed relationship after another.

A more flagrant example would be someone whose third or fourth spouse look and act very similar to the previous spouses—something highly noticeable to everyone except the person with the multiple marriages.

That pattern may be rooted in having absorbed the kind of relationship he or she had with either parent—mother or father. That became a template for future relationships.

The man or woman might be drawn to the same kind of issues he or she had with either the mother or the father—independent of gender. That is, a man could be “marrying” his mother or his father; and vice versa for the woman. The pull could reflect seeking the approval of love of an unloving or indifferent parent, for example. 

The key to liberation from this pattern is growing sufficient self-awareness about it, and working towards healthier relationship patterns. Therapy can be of significant help, of course. Sometimes, though, a person has an innate awareness of pursuing the wrong “type” to begin with, while going ahead anyway.

I described this in a previous Psychology Today post about research findings showing that people who have doubts about marrying someone should heed them: They have higher rates of divorce. A vivid example of someone who was aware that this was the “wrong” person is a man who said to me, “I remember, as I was walking down the aisle—literally—to marry her, I said to myself, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m making a huge mistake.’”

If you take a step back after a relationship breakup—and assess what you sought and why—that could point to what you need to learn. That can help you move towards a romantic partner with whom you have a better chance for a positive and sustaining mesh.

I’ve described that assessment in a previous post as five parts of a “relationship inventory.” It can help you to see your pattern with a clearer vision, and identify a healthier path forward. I describe the inventory more fully here, but in brief, they include asking yourself:

  • What was the pull?  
  • Then what happened?
  • Did you learn anything?
  • Or not ...?
  • What can you do now?

Connecting with the “right” person is a life challenge. Mistakes are human. But you can learn and grow from the forces that shaped your personality and the sources of your romantic attraction and attachment.

That’s especially important, when otherwise they may lead you down a path ending in unhappiness and a sense of failure in your quest for a loving, intimate relationship.