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Three ways we unconsciously choose partners and why

Personal Online Therapy

By Sarah Kopinsky – Romance has always been a point of great collective interest, and rightfully so! In 2014, Landes, Ardelt, Vaillant, & Waldinger contributed to a 70-year study in which they found that the quality of love in one’s life determines the quality of life, overall. The importance of relating is simple; It heavily informs one’s entire well-being and ability to function. As well as the way in which we emotionally, mentally and intellectually navigate our lives.

Erikson (1953) catapulted collective “light-bulb” moments when his work led him to the creation of his “Identity Development Theory”. In short, it explains that successfully going through life stages, and learning the lessons they teach, brings wholeness. The more unsuccessful it is, however, may lead to; (full blown) identity crisis.

The quality of love in one’s life determines the quality of life.

Why is that? Well, it is likely that some parts of one’s identity have not been fully attended to and require additional work to release one from stagnation and discontentment in life. Erikson explained that when people don’t evolve, the same pain tends to occur until it is resolved. Both Erikson (1953) and Bowlby (1964) focused their attention on how parental love, or the lack of it, affected life. Bowlby’s “Attachment Theory” laid another corner stone in the foundation of psychological understandings regarding interconnections – their origins and function.

Life: Day One – Learning to Trust

Learning to Trust – It’s quite a thing – All humans learn to trust or mistrust in the very first days of life. Babies greatly depend on their caretakers for constant warm care. When receiving this they learn about love, if not, they learn (and internalize) that “it’s unsafe here”. That’s not all children learn. Parents transfer their innermost beliefs, feelings and perceptions onto their children.; The way in which they love (themselves, each other and their child) ultimately determines their child’s development (Erikson, 1953;  Bowlby, 1964; Fisher, 1994, 2016).  

First things first, when children grow up in a relatively secure environment, especially when they feel sick, tired or sad, affection helps them to experience and internalize a strong sense of trust and confidence. It cannot be said, however, that the human heart, or the home he lives in is without crisis. All humans have a certain level of trust in the world, in their own “Self “ and in others. When reaching 1-3 years of age, children learn about autonomy vs. shame and doubt. Children now discover their interconnected natures and experience their very first sensations of “Freedom”.

They learn to take pride in autonomously choosing toys, clothes and experience self-confidence when successfully completing tasks. They blossom with pride and joy when receiving encouragement for a job well done. When criticism occurs instead children feel ashamed and experience (self) doubt. A parental perspective which does not welcome mistakes installs doubt and fear and results in a blocked desire to explore the world and others. Children who receive affirming messages at home are likely to do better in social settings and could feel a bit more centred.  

It’s beneficial when children learn to trust their own decision making

Fear limits curiosity, freedom and belonging. These skills are needed in relating (to others in general) as they help generate a healthy romantic balance (Perel, 2006; Fisher, 1994, 2016). When lack of freedom occurs, children develop shame instead of a sense of agency, where they learn to trust their own decision making and enjoy higher self-esteem and confidence levels. Lacking encouragement, support, and being criticised in the closest relationships can bring forth blame, humiliation and feelings of inferiority.

In class, children learn about their own competence and abilities. They start making new friends and perceive themselves through their teachers. Their grades become a reflection of how well their skills do in the world. Children compare themselves to their peers and are listening to the messages they receive. These further help or stagnate their growth and ability to improve their talents.

Teenagers ask themselves who they really are and what they want from life. They develop a sense of “Self”, form strong beliefs about what they feel. They now have clearer values, and concern themselves with how others around them feel. When their personal feelings and ideas are confronted, controlled, ridiculed or restricted by parents, this can lead to identity confusion and insecurity about their future. Changes in vocations, academic goals, or partner choices may occur when trying to please others. 

At 18-40 years of age, humans’ (in)capacity to love either brings them intimacy and joy from their enduring relationships where they are trusted and mutually loved or, when unsuccessful, loneliness and isolation. This phase is where those (in)authentic choices regarding those big loves, careers and family emanate great regret, remorse and depression or where they help one cultivate a great sense of purpose, meaning, and security.  And yes, at this point one often learns the value of love and one may start to redefine success. Once achieving this, people focus more on contributing to others and to lead productive lives.

Humans capacity to love can bring intimacy and joy from enduring relationships

The Famous 3 Love Bond Styles

Bowlby (1964) tested children’s responses to short parent-child separations and their effects.

1.      Secure attachment – children showed distress when being separated from their parents for a little bit, but sought out ways to comfort themselves and were relatively easily calmed when the parent returned. Children showed trust in their parents and demonstrated feeling worthy, seen and safe and accepted as they are. In adult relating it could help partners to feel close and to experience the warmth and a wonderful intimacy. It can be that securer partners express emotions and set boundaries with greater confidence.

2.      Anxiety-resistant attachment – Children experienced higher distress levels. When parents returned, they sought comfort but also attempted to “penalize” their parent(s) for their abandonment. Children experienced greater fear of being left by their parents and later by their partners and often required a greater sense of safety, love and warmth. Their insecurity, often caused by a parent’s  lack of involvement and inability (or lack of desire) to attune to the child’s needs ( when caretakers act emotionally unavailable or distant when the child desires warmth) could lead them to become the “chasers” (or “settlers”) in relationships. A great amount of their self-worth depends on their partners. Signs of a preoccupation with abandonment and rejection may show. Which, as a result, limit the partner’s freedom. Partners can find it hard to trust anxious partners who could refrain and fear to word their real personal needs, desires and emotions. Who deeply fear the rejection of their true selves.

3.      Avoidant attachment – These children showed minimal stress or very low-stress levels when the separation occurred. Children responded by completely ignoring their parent(s) upon reunion, or by taking active measures to completely shun them. Their conduct revealed a coping mechanism which “helped” avoid emotional attachment and pain. Such children often had parents who did not encourage any crying and who did not engagingly attend to their child when hurt, afraid or sick. They may have lacked such skills because they experienced the same as children or because they hoped to install (premature) independence in their child. Children here learned to suppress their vulnerability, feelings and needs and often grew up having difficulty showing and asking for love, warmth and support – no matter how deeply needed or direly yearned for.

Bowlby (1964) tested children’s responses to short parent-child separations and their effects.

The 3 main points of (fatal) attraction

1)     People can (subconsciously) choose partners who help them transcend unresolved issues with their parent(s) (see Bowlby point 2 and 3). People want to heal and choose partners who help them to do this by “choosing” partners with the same errors who they now need to learn to deal with, as adults. They now need to develop their own sense of agency and rules of how they want to be treated and must word their own needs. They might also decide to leave dysfunctional familiar script and drama. Real (2007) claimed that people often seek to change their partners when the lesson really is about not repeating what already happened in childhood. There is an opportunity in this for people to learn how to change the characters they play in their narratives. This brings the opportunity to heal what was left unresolved and unfinished in childhood. 

Johnson (2008) described how Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) helps to teach many couples how to (re)connect and repair their own attachment patterns. It involves new understandings about true intimacy and connection. When insecurity occurs, that pain can trigger deep negative feelings and reactions. Emotions can be entangled in childhood and attachment experiences. Therapy can offer tools to learn to genuinely see partners and to become a more emphatic partner. It can help to better understand each others’ thoughts, pains, and reactions. The honest expression in safe environments where encouragement exists for speaking one’s mind and heart can inspire new insights. By becoming aware of relational negative cycles and hurt, couples learn to take ownership of their parts and patterns in these and can grow to change these. They learn to see the (situational) crisis as negative instead of each other. They often learn to restore space, trust and sexual intimacy and can find new roots and ways to love which impacts themselves and the relationship.

2)     People seek partners with the same values and qualities of their attachment role model(s). In this case, these could have helped to feel good about oneself. It could have helped in accomplishing goals. To belong, to feel seen, to learn in pleasant ways and to feel greatly nurtured. In this case, one seeks out a partner who resembles familiar values and characteristics they (subconsciously) want to experience again so they are attracted to someone who resembles those who loved them the most (Bowlby, 1969; Fisher, 2016).  

3)   People choose partners who possess qualities they lack so they can self-expand and… you guessed right, evolve! (Aron & Aron, 1986). The “Opposites Attract” cliché can be found here. Individuals are often attracted to those who challenge their limited selves. To notions and views that can teach them their most desirable (and perhaps direly needed) skills. Such skills that could help them achieve their personal callings. To find and create their own success stories and help them lead meaningful, intimate and enriched lives. Ironically, what attracts such partners often tends to become the exact point of great irritation and resentment in the relationship when expansion doesn’t occur in the partner who sought it.

People choose partners who possess qualities they lack so they can self-expand and evolve!

The New thinking on Adult LOVE

And if after all this you ask yourself: “If I become aware of all this, will I be able to (re)create certainty and full security? Will I be able to experience eternal bliss, not be the occasional pain in the bum, have both adventure and wow moments of romance and also great solidity and stability from now on? ” The answer is likely not always. Here’s why:

Esther Perel (2006) and Minuchin, Reider Borda (2014) all agreed that mutual love is not secure, by its very nature. I would like to add to that what many scientists have known for centuries; it is highly likely that we, humans (along with anything else that has life in this universe) is uncertain and may even be of some (great) purpose.

It is a universal law that anything in the world is possessive of both positive and negative elements. Hawkings & Stone (1992) attributed the universes’ entire existence to imperfection. Without imperfection, no great change would ever have taken place and nothing new could ever be created. 

Doubt means leaving room for alternatives which are only made possible through plasticity; designed to help things evolve. It can therefore by default not be or offer an experience of any full security. The human brain, bodies, personalities and the universe change, and never stop (Terraciano, 2005; Kothari et al., 2014; Lea, Tung, Archie & Alberts, 2017). No childhood, partner, or life can be free of some form of crisis, but one can learn to adjust impossible expectations, give more space and learn to trust more, one can be trained for uncertainty and become more secure in others and oneself. 

Carl Jung explained that humans have a “Self”. A core within that is a source of great strength,  offering room for development and growth. Proper development of the “Self” helps one overcome insecurity and fear. Reconnecting to this can help with becoming that happier and healthier emotional functioning being whose conduct supports their development. This can also attract a bigger system on which one can rely for many different needs.

Proper development of the “Self” helps one overcome insecurity and fear.

Dysfunction often involves deep pain and it can (re)direct the way in which people evolve. It can also become a great fuel for change. And although nobody always makes the best choices, awareness can bring that little bit of courage needed to address the dark areas of one’s life that one seeks to avoid, so that these don’t continue to persist. Often the greatest partners have had some form of attachment pain, in fact, those with the greatest attachment pain have often become wonderful partners who showed great resilience, acceptance, kindness, warmth and who were amazing contributors to their communities and to others’ quality of life (Werner & Smith, 2001).

From this perspective, dysfunction can remains particularly intricate, and paradoxically, propels real change to the ways in which we love, relate and communicate and the ways our children will. Uncertainty then is not per definition something unfavoured; it instead, becomes the base for the lives we truly aspire to live.  It was once believed that genetics determined one’s behaviour, but it is what nurtures them that determines their outcome (Ridley, 2003). Like our genes, it is up to us to become masters of our own well-being and imperfect selves.  To put it bluntly – We’re all here to learn, folks.

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