Why We Date Guys Similar To Our Exes Without Realizing It, According To Science

By Meghan Dillon··  6 min read
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They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistake twice and expecting a different result, so maybe we’re all a little insane when it comes to dating.

In my late teens and early twenties, I had a horrible habit of going for the bad boy and guys who treated me like garbage. I thought I’d beat the habit at one point when I met a guy who treated me well, but when he and I realized we were better off as friends, I fell right back into my old habits. The next guy I found myself drawn to was a walking red flag, and I’ve always had a hard time understanding why I fell back into my old ways when I knew there were better options out there.

It turns out I’m not the only one who has fallen into this trap, as there’s scientific research to show why we often date guys who are similar to our exes without realizing it.

We Find Comfort in What’s Familiar

Think of your favorite childhood movie or show. It probably brings up warm and fuzzy memories (which is why our culture is obsessed with nostalgia). We seek comfort in what’s familiar, and we do similar things when it comes to dating, which makes us romanticize past relationships that weren’t all sunshine and rainbows.

While we know we can’t change the past (*cough* Jay Gatsby chasing Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby), we sometimes try to do it on a subconscious level. Clinical psychologist Erika Martinez, Psy.D., believes that we can fall into a pattern of dating similar people in a subconscious effort to fix past relationships. She says, “Romantic relationships can serve as surrogate relationships for ones that didn't turn out so well earlier in our lives. By being in a relationship with someone similar, you're making an effort to psychologically heal the wounds of that past relationship. The issue is you're likely to get hurt again, which only re-wounds you." 

Romantic relationships can serve as surrogate relationships for earlier ones that didn't turn out well.

Nobody likes to feel uncertain, so we sometimes enter relationships that we subconsciously know won’t work out, but it’s less anxiety-inducing than dating someone entirely different and having no idea where the relationship is going. We find comfort in what’s familiar, even if it’s something incredibly toxic. Though it’s scary to take a risk, anything that’s worth trying (including finding the right man for you) is risky, but worth it in the end. Letting go of the fear of getting hurt can open up the doors to Mr. Right, so why not take that risk?

Your Attachment Style Might Play a Role

According to a German study, your attachment style plays a role in who you date. Family therapist Gwendolyn Nelson-Terry writes, "Attachment styles can be broken down into three main groups: secure, anxious, and avoidant. Secure people are comfortable in relationships but are also comfortable on their own. Anxious people tend to be more of the 'clingy' type. Avoidant people tend to avoid emotional closeness and vulnerability."

Anxiously attached daters fear they’re going to be abandoned. They’re the ones who freak out if you go out with friends and don’t text. They feel triggered and might send you a hundred texts or pick a fight fearing that you’re going to leave them. On the other side of the spectrum are the avoidant attached daters. They might feel smothered, or like they’re losing their time, space, independence, and individuality in a relationship, which triggers them to push the other person away. 

Securely attached daters have the best of both worlds – they’re comfortable with both intimacy and independence, vulnerability and boundaries.

Securely attached daters are comfortable with both intimacy and independence, vulnerability and boundaries.

According to Logan Ury, a behavioral scientist turned Director of Relationship Science for Hinge, “around 50% of daters are securely attached, but when you’re out there dating, it doesn’t feel like that. And the reason is that securely attached people are really good at getting into partnerships, and so, they’re actually out of the dating pool, and they’re in relationships. And what you have are the anxious and avoidant people dating each other.”

Ury continues, “And this is really problematic because they reinforce each other’s worst habits. The anxiously attached person thinks whenever I date someone, they pull away, and the avoidant attached person thinks whenever I date someone, they smother me. And so they are actually doing those exact things to each other, in what we call the anxious-avoidant loop.”

So how do you break out of this vicious cycle? 

How To Break the Habit

Let’s be honest, everyone has a type, and physical attraction is important in relationships. I’ve met guys who fit the physical type I’m attracted to (usually dark-haired, tall, athletic, nice eyes, basically Henry Cavill) who were total sweethearts, and others were the absolute worst. It took me a while to see that the physical type I’m attracted to isn’t the problem – it has nothing to do with someone’s personality and values. 

Though we can be blinded by good looks and assume he’s a good guy because of it (this is known as the halo effect), it’s more important to look at the unhealthy personality traits that you’re attracted to. For example, many women (myself included) mistake confidence for arrogance, which can be very problematic. Once you learn the difference between a confident guy and an arrogant one and can distinguish between the two traits (or whichever problem you're struggling with when it comes to toxic traits), you’ll have an easier time being attracted to guys with more desirable traits.

What’s important is the ability to notice the positive and negatives of your type to find a guy who’s good for you.

This same self-awareness can be applied to your dating attachment type. Ury says, “If you know that you’re an anxiously attached dater who loves the chase, who tends to date avoidant people, then learn what an avoidant person looks like, and next time that happens, say ‘No, I’m not going down this path again, I am not making the same decision. I know where this ends, I am going to make a different choice, which is hanging up that relationship and pursuing somebody who’s more securely attached.’”

It’s also helpful to make a list of good things you’ve noticed in past relationships. Whether you’ve realized that you thrive in a relationship with a guy who encourages you to explore your interests or someone with the same sense of humor, it’s important to take note of that to keep in mind for future relationships. Having a type isn’t always a bad thing. What’s important is the ability to notice the positive and negatives of your type in order to find a guy who’s good for you.

Closing Thoughts

Sometimes we make mistakes in relationships that don’t make sense, and dating guys who are similar to our exes is one of them. Research proves that there are psychological reasons behind why we do this, mainly because what’s familiar is comfortable. Lucky for us, you can break this habit from separating the good and the bad in your past relationships, making it easier to find Mr. Right.

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