Why You Keep Dating Jerks
“Why am I attracting the wrong people?”
“How can I avoid dating ‘players?’”
“Why do I keep dating jerks?”
I can’t tell you how many times a therapy or dating coaching client has asked me questions like these, usually through tears. They’re often reeling in the aftermath of a traumatic breakup, reflecting on a painful dating history, and feeling bleak about their odds of ever finding a healthy, loving relationship in the future.
When you fall for partners who cheat, who mistreat you, who don’t value you, or who just aren’t capable of being in a healthy relationship, it’s painful. When this becomes a pattern, dating can feel like a carousel of heartbreak and disappointment, where the only choices are between toxic connections and being alone.
But if you’re reading this, I’m here to tell you that you have other, better choices. You still have time to get off this ride, stop accepting relationships with jerks, and go find real love.
In this article, I’m going to tell you how. I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. Joining me for this conversation is Sarah, a “Love, Happiness and Success” listener who graciously volunteered to share her difficult dating history, and to discuss how she broke free from a pattern of dating jerks to find a healthy, loving relationship. We’re talking about why jerks can seem so darn datable, the romantic myths that keep you stuck, and the deep work you can begin today to banish jerks from your love life, once and for all.
Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.
Why You Date Jerks
No one deserves to be lied to, cheated on, used, neglected, strung along, ghosted, or gaslit. Unfortunately, many people experience a toxic relationship with a jerk at some point. And for some, dating jerks is the norm.
If you have a history of choosing partners who don’t treat you with love and respect, it’s time to examine your dating patterns, get curious about where they’re coming from, and start shifting them in a healthy new direction. It’s common for people to choose jerks when they have a scarcity mindset about dating. They wonder why they’re still single and they feel like it’s a problem to be solved, rather than an opportunity to develop a stronger sense of themselves and a clearer idea of what a healthy relationship would mean for them.
This is deep, fundamental, important work. It can improve your relationships across the board — not just in your dating life.
The Myth of the “Right Person”
Step one in breaking through a pattern of dating jerks is to let go of a story that’s pervasive in our culture: that you just haven’t met the right person yet, and that once you do, everything will fall into place.
Of course, meeting a kind, emotionally available, and trustworthy person (who’s also crazy about you) is a wonderful thing. But if you have a longstanding pattern of dating partners who don’t treat you well, you have some barriers to healthy relationships to dismantle first. Until you begin the dismantling, you’re likely to repel the “right person” when you meet them or to reject them yourself.
Your real work isn’t to continue sifting through potential partners and hoping for the best. It’s to heal and grow until a healthy, loving relationship is the only relationship that fits.
Attachment Issues and Dating Jerks
When I have a client — often a woman — sitting on my couch after yet another painful breakup, asking, “Why do I keep attracting the wrong man?,” I start with a few questions about her childhood.
Did you experience abuse, neglect, or abandonment as a child? Was trauma a feature of your early years? Do you have a difficult or painful relationship with one or both of your parents?
If your early childhood attachments weren’t safe, secure, and loving, this is the likely root of any unhealthy romantic attachments you’re experiencing as an adult. It’s very common for people to be drawn to partners who remind them of an early attachment figure and try to get the love and care from these partners that they didn’t get as kids.
These relationships often lead to heartbreak, and repeating them, again and again, is like injuring the same body part over and over. If you suspect attachment issues are at the root of your painful romantic patterns, book an appointment with an attachment-oriented therapist or divorce recovery specialist who can help you break the cycle.
To learn more about how you attach to partners, take our attachment styles quiz.
Stop Over-Focusing on “Chemistry”
Some of the biggest jerks in the dating pool initially present as attractive, fun, wildly successful types. These sparkly people make your brain dispense pleasure chemicals in their presence — a sensation that can be confused with compatibility or love.
But like most highs, the hangover is usually close behind. You may discover that this exciting person is all charm and no substance, or that their intense interest in you peters out shortly after they get you into bed.
Meanwhile, many non-jerks aren’t so sparkly at first blush. They may downplay their accomplishments, rather than highlight them. It may take some time to discover the best parts of their personality. They may not lavish you with attention or flattery right off the bat, instead, they may take the time to actually get to know you.
All of this can feel a bit… boring. Especially if you’re accustomed to “love” feeling like a quick dopamine hit.
Of course, there are some sparkly, charming people who also happen to be excellent partners (and some less sparkly people who also happen to be jerks). But if you’re overfocusing on chemistry — on how you feel in another person’s presence — you might be choosing a short-term high over genuine, enduring love.
Are You Actually Dating Jerks?
Sometimes we believe we’re dating jerks, when in fact our love lives are unfolding in the natural, sometimes difficult way that love lives tend to unfold — and yes, that includes the occasional breakup that’s difficult to recover from.
You may think your partner’s a jerk when you realize they’re not who you wanted them to be, and you’re feeling hurt or disappointed about that. This is a sign that you need to move slower and take more time to get to know people, before getting deeply attached.
It could also be that the person you’re dating just doesn’t have the same level of interest in you that you have in them, and is communicating this in various ways that feel a little jerky. They may be slow to respond to your messages, unmotivated to make plans, or unwilling to commit to your relationship. This kind of rejection hurts, and it can be hard to get over it. But it doesn’t make them a jerk unless they’ve deceived you in some way about your relationship (which happens!). To avoid situations like this, learn to judge potential partners by the effort they’re putting into your relationship. If you’re not seeing effort, that’s your cue to move on.
Finally, we sometimes think we’re dating jerks, when in fact our own unresolved issues are introducing unhealthy elements into the relationship mix. The way you show up in relationships will affect the feedback you receive from partners, and if you’re getting a lot of the same, unpleasant feedback, that could be a sign that your own style of relating needs to change.
And if you do need to work on how you show up in relationships, you’re in great company. Relationships are an opportunity for all of us to learn and grow into better versions of ourselves, and to develop essential relationship skills like empathy, communication, listening, and emotional intelligence.
How to Stop Dating Jerks
But there is one thing you can do all on your own, that can change your dating life for the better: Get clear about who you are and what you’re looking for in a relationship.
Do you know what your values are? Do you know where you’re headed in life? Do you know where your boundaries are in relationships, what you’ll accept and what you’ll walk away from? If you’re looking for someone to spend your life with, what qualities will that person have?
Once you’re clear on the answers to these questions, dating will feel a lot easier. You’ll find yourself drawn toward emotionally healthy partners who fit into the life you’re committed to building, and the jerks will lose their sparkle.
Episode Show Notes:
[02:33] A Harmful Dating Pattern
- Gaining self-awareness can help you understand and recognize toxicity in your relationships.
- Being stuck in a harmful pattern can be traumatizing and prevent you from finding the real, healthy love you want and deserve.
- It’s ultimately your power — and your responsibility — to make things better for yourself.
- Clear the deck for new ideas! It’s not luck or chance that will help you — it will be you and your growth.
[06:29] Jerks And Attachment Styles
- You may have unresolved attachment issues from your childhood.
- You might never feel safe or secure in relationships, requiring plenty of validation. On the other hand, you might be keeping people at a distance.
- Involving yourself with someone with an unhealthy attachment style can cause you to act in unhealthy ways, too, even if you were secure before the relationship.
[12:57] Why Do I Attract Jerks? Jerks Are Attractive!
- Jerks tend to be superficially charming — they’re often good-looking, fun, and successful.
- It’s easy to get swept off your feet when you first meet them.
- Jerks may have narcissistic or sociopathic traits or have highly avoidant attachment styles.
- Nice, kind, and securely attached people are not that flashy. Developing a real relationship often feels like growing a friendship.
[16:15] Not Everyone Is A Jerk
- Emotionally healthy people will get to know you over a period of time. It won’t be as exciting and will usually feel calm and peaceful.
- If you’ve been dating a lot of jerks, a healthy person might seem boring.
- Some people may realize they’re incompatible with you and reject you. This doesn’t mean either of you are bad people.
[22:16] Dating People Who Aren’t Jerks
- Being a good partner is a learned skill.
- If you can’t show up well in a relationship, your partner might pull away.
- It’s critical to face yourself as well. What are you doing to create these outcomes? Are you bringing harmful patterns to the relationship?
- Take time to understand yourself and your values.
[33:16] Unrealistic Expectations of Dating
- A good beginning doesn’t guarantee a happy ending.
- Some people might only show negative behaviors later in a relationship.
[41:51] Dating A Jerk Advice: “Red Flags”
- Red flags can get buried by powerful feelings at the start of a relationship.
- They also come in waves — you may have a great day, followed by multiple arguments.
- Heeding the “red flags” in a relationship is a valuable lesson to learn.
[48:51] Attracting the Wrong People
- Attempting to “fix” someone tends to backfire.
- It pays off to introspect and understand yourself.
- You deserve better; be with someone who builds you up.
[57:09] How to Date a Nice Guy After Dating Jerks
- Focus on a potential partner’s demeanor before jumping to conclusions.
- Cultivate mutual commitment, honesty, and authenticity in a relationship.
- Take your time getting to know someone.
Music in this episode is from “Automatic” with “Damage.”
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Why You Keep Dating Jerks
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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