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"Why Do I Keep Attracting Toxic Partners?"

"...and what can I do to break the cycle?"

If you’ve had a few relationships in your life, look back at the type of people you were with. Do you have a pattern of attracting toxic partners?

Toxic partners are people who tend to be unstable, who act in ways that bring you down, and who criticise and abuse you—emotionally, physically, or sexually. A toxic partner finds it hard to feel content and safe within a relationship, no matter how loving and supportive you are. Their behaviours tend to be driven by unmet needs, which often go back to neglectful, unloving, or abusive experiences in their childhood.

Do you feel like you just “end up” with these types of people but don’t know why? Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Jane grew up with a mother who was very needy but emotionally unavailable to her. “Whenever I tried to express that I was upset, I was always told to remember how lucky I was. I wasn’t allowed to express any feelings without being made to feel selfish and stupid.”

Jane’s current relationship is with a man who consistently talks about his own needs and expects support from Jane. Whenever she tries to tell him she is upset or anxious—and it takes a huge amount of effort for her to even try to talk about these issues—he belittles her needs, mocking her for being upset by pretend-crying like a baby, and reminds her of how comfortable their life is and how he pays the bills. Jane’s other relationships have all been similar.

Andy was raised in a family with highly critical parents. Not only did he learn from them that he wasn’t good at certain things, but he also internalised this to a level where he felt he just “wasn’t good,” period. He saw himself as defective.

Andy’s wife was highly critical of his clothes, his career choices, and called him “weak and useless.” She would put him down in front of friends and accuse him of being “too sensitive” if he expressed anger or sadness afterward. “I’ve realised that my previous girlfriends were also highly critical. I’ve never been able to stand up for myself. I usually think they’ve got a point, anyway.”

Why do Jane and Andy—and so many people like them—continue to choose partners who criticise, bully, control, and put them down?

It's no accident.

You might just think it’s bad luck—you just happened to have ended up with toxic partners. If, once, you’re unlucky enough to meet a toxic person, spend a short while in an unsatisfactory relationship, and then extricate yourself, you might just have had a one-off bad experience.

However, if you continue to stay in a long-term relationship with a toxic person or you have had a stream of toxic partners, you may need to accept that you are choosing this type of person on an unconscious level (they’ll also be choosing you, similarly).

You may be recreating patterns from your past.

We learn about intimate relationships in the context of our family. When we form secure attachments with a parent or parents based on unconditional love and acceptance, we learn that we are acceptable and that we deserve respect and good treatment from other people. We learn that we have a right to express our opinions and have our needs met. If we’re lucky to grow up in this type of environment, chances are we will attract people who love and respect us and who treat us with compassion and care.

If, instead, you were raised in a family where your needs for love and safety weren’t met, with a parent or parents who were cold, unavailable, volatile, critical, and who perhaps abandoned or abused you, chances are you will choose partners who create these situations for you by behaving in ways which are similar to your parent/ parents.

Why do we recreate these patterns?

Hold on, you might think. If my mum was so critical, or my dad was super controlling, why on earth would I want to keep reliving this as an adult by choosing people who treat me the same way my mum or dad did?

What we learn early in life feels real and true. Although acting according to these beliefs might cause us harm, it feels like it’s right. We tend to be drawn to what confirms what we think about the world—no matter how much suffering it causes us.

Jane learned that she did not deserve to be heard and chose partners who disrespected her and gaslighted her into being silent. Andy learned that he was defective and chose partners who confirmed this by criticising him and making fun of him in front of his friends.

Although Jane and Andy were suffering because of their beliefs, they still held on tightly to them and felt a sense of comfort operating within their belief systems. Unconsciously, they chose people who could confirm their beliefs about themselves and others by triggering the emotions and responses they were used to having triggered as children. Sometimes those people who are capable of triggering the most intense emotions—such as a deep fear someone will leave us—seem the most exciting to us.

Wavebreak Media Ltd, 123rf
Source: Wavebreak Media Ltd, 123rf

What can you do to reverse this?

Identify the patterns between your partners.

Write a list of your current partner and past partners and identify what you would say were their dominant personality traits (positive and negative). What common themes can you see between your partners?

Sometimes these aren’t immediately obvious. For instance, you might think that Diane was loving compared to Nicola who was more controlling than Mary—yet they all cheated on you and were highly critical.

Compare the patterns to those of your own parent/s.

Write another list with a column for each parent (or the parent who you feel affected you most) and your partner. What traits and behaviours does your partner share with your parents? You can repeat this exercise with past partners. What are the commonalities?

Recognise the triggers with potential new partners.

You may find yourself easily pulled towards new partners who can recreate these same patterns for you. They often seem like the most exciting people on offer and the ones we tend to experience “love at first sight” with.

We’re often blinded to people’s faults in the new stages of a romance, but look out for the warning signs. Is this person criticising or trying to control you? Do they name call and put you down? Are you potentially falling for another person of the same type?

Recognise there’s nothing wrong with you.

You might worry that, if you keep attracting bullying, nasty, emotionally unavailable people that there’s something inherently wrong with you. Attracting toxic people doesn’t mean that you’re a bad, useless, or worthless person. However, it does suggest that you have unmet needs and issues from your past which have not been fully processed and which you would benefit from exploring, with the help of a therapist if needed.

More from Claire Jack Ph.D.
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