Why We Are Attracted to Bad Partners (Who Resemble a Parent)

I Married My Father

I Married My Father

The research is thin on this point, but it appears many of us bond to partners whose attachment style (and other characteristics) reprise dramas from the family we grew up in. It’s often observed that many people end up married to people who remind them of the opposite-sex parent, and the attraction of the same psychological signalling games we used with our caregivers when we were children is that it is comforting and familiar, and confirms our sense of ourselves.

This is why we observe the outsize number and surprising stability (if not happiness) of Anxious-Preoccupied and Dismissive-Avoidant pairings. [For review, read “Attachment Type Combinations in Relationships.”]

The Anxious-Preoccupied would be wise to look for a Secure partner who can help build security and likely make for a happier marriage [quoting from my book]:

The preoccupied wife who had ambivalent attachment to her parent cannot believe her husband when he says, despite their fights and mutual dissatisfactions, that he genuinely loves her and wants to stay with her. She cannot assimilate it to her worldview, her internal model. She is sure he will abandon her, either because he already wants to or because her impossible and anxious neediness will eventually drive him out. But his steadfastness over the years builds her trust. It causes her to remember her relationship with a great uncle, whose love was precious and unwavering, and to think more and more about him and how good she felt about herself around him. Gradually, she assimilates her marriage to this model, and it becomes more central. Feeling more secure, she now finds herself freer to reflect on the past. — Karen, Robert. Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 404

Though is appears a preoccupied person might be better off with a secure partner, some research indicates that in this case opposites attract:

A number of studies have looked into the question of whether we are attracted to people based on their attachment style or ours. Two researchers in the field of adult attachment, Paula Pietromonaco, of the University of Massachusetts, and Katherine Carnelley, of the University of Southampton in the UK, found that avoidant individuals actually prefer anxiously attached people. Another study, by Jeffry Simpson of the University of Minnesota, showed that anxious women are more likely to date avoidant men. Is it possible, then, that people who guard their independence with ferocity would seek the partners most likely to impinge on their autonomy? Or that people who seek closeness are attracted to people who want to push them away? And if so, why? Pietromonaco and Carnelley believe that these attachment styles actually complement each other in a way. Each reaffirms the other’s beliefs about themselves and about relationships. The avoidants’ defensive self-perception that they are strong and independent is confirmed, as is the belief that others want to pull them into more closeness than they are comfortable with. The anxious types find that their perception of wanting more intimacy than their partner can provide is confirmed, as is their anticipation of ultimately being let down by significant others. So, in a way, each style is drawn to reenact a familiar script over and over again. — Levine, Amir; Heller, Rachel. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. p. 91

This kind of complementary dysfunction can lead to a stable relationship, but one where both partners stay in their insecure styles, with the preoccupied battling for every scrap of attention and the avoidant one only giving enough to confirm his view of attachment as a necessary evil. These attractions are based on re-enacting the dysfunctional touch and response cycles of their early childhoods, and generally these couples report they are together despite their unhappiness.

An interesting post by Peg Streep on the Psychology Today blogs (“Why Your Partner May Be Like Your Parent”) goes into more depth on “replaying old family patterns:”

Perhaps nothing is as disheartening as the discovery—after years of trying to escape from your dysfunctional childhood—that you have actually managed to recreate it. One woman, the daughter of a hypercritical and demanding mother, recently talked with me about her recently-ended, two-decades-long marriage:

“I still have issues with feeling capable and doing things right. Unfortunately, I married my mother and was never able to feel competent in my husband’s eyes, either. I also never really felt loved by him, in the same way I didn’t feel loved by my mother.”

A man emailed me recently with similar concerns:

“On the surface, my wife and my mother have nothing in common. My wife is petite and blonde, well-educated, polished, and sophisticated; my brunette and big-boned mother is none of those things. But they both criticize me constantly. Nothing I ever did was good enough for my mother because my older brother was perfect. My wife rules the roost with a dissatisfied look on her face which is depressing and familiar.”

A study by Glenn Geher suggests that we do tend to choose a romantic partner who is similar to our opposite-sex parent. In his research, he not only asked participants to self-report on how their romantic partners were like their opposite-sex parents across various categories—he actually interviewed the parents as well. The shared characteristics he discovered between his subjects’ partners and their opposite-sex parents were robust, and not merely coincidental. Needless to say, when romantic partners were like parents in good ways, relationship satisfaction was high; when the similarities were related to negative characteristics, however, relationship satisfaction was low.

When we meet someone new, it’s not just our unconscious models that are in the room or at the bar; there are conscious assessments, too. So the question remains: How do we end up marrying Mom if she’s been critical, unavailable or unloving? That’s exactly what Claudia Chloe Brumbaugh and R. Chris Fraley asked: How do insecurely attached people attract mates? After all, we all want a securely attached partner—one who’s emotionally available, loving, supportive, dependable—not an insecure or clingy one, or someone who’s detached and uncommunicative. How do we get roped in?

The researchers suggested that what happens is a combination of misreading by one partner and a fair amount of strategizing and even dissembling by the insecure partner. They point out that anxiously attached people may seem fascinating at first—their preoccupation with themselves may easily be confused with self-disclosure and openness, which facilitates a sense of connection. Similarly, an avoidant person may come across as independent and strong. In a series of experiments, the team discovered that avoidants—despite the fact that they don’t want emotional connection—actually made lots of eye contact and used touch more than securely attached people to seem more appealing in a dating situation. Avoidants use humor in dating situations to create a sense of sharing and detract from their essential aloofness. Although the researchers didn’t use Bartholomew’s distinction between fearful and dismissing avoidant types, it’s clear that the fearful avoidant—who both wants and fears emotional connection—would be the hardest to read and identify. Eventually, though, the leopard will show his spots.

More reading on “bad attractors” in relationships that lead people to choose replays of dysfunctional family patterns and bad relationships over good ones:

Why Are Great Husbands Being Abandoned?
The “Fairy Tale” Myth: Both False and Destructive
Dating Pool Danger: Harder to Find Good Partners After 30
“The Science of Happily Ever After” – Couples Communications
Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment
Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?
And this one on malignant narcissists, who often attract sensitive, empathetic partners who enable them: Malignant Narcissists
Dismissive-Avoidants as Parents


  1. > the team discovered that avoidants—despite the fact that they don’t want emotional connection—actually made lots of eye contact and used touch more than securely attached people to seem more appealing in a dating situation.

    An epiphany. Taking time to see whether they’re really capable of bonding, SO worth it. Thank you for publishing this very accessible article.

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