“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Single people often lament that finding someone to date is hard. According to data from the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of daters say so. And when they fail to find the right person, too many people end up dating the wrong one. Some complain that they are suffering “Groundhog Day Syndrome” in dating: following the same failed pattern, over and over, because the people they are attracted to are not good mates — prospects who, for example, are already in a relationship, have unmanaged addictions, or are abusive.
The problem of being attracted to the wrong person is a staple of art and literature. Take Gatsby and Daisy, or Siegmund and Sieglinde in Richard Wagner’s opera The walkers. (In the latter, the heroine falls in love with her twin brother, who also happens to be a mortal enemy of her husband’s family — no one surpasses Wagner in twistedness.) In real life, dating the wrong person is rarely this dramatic, even if you do it over and over again. But it can make dating a tedious and frustrating series of failed romances.
To move on from Groundhog Day once and for all, you need to make a commitment to date the right people for the right reasons. This might mean staying single for longer, looking past some cosmetic imperfections, or seeing a movie or two with someone you might once have dismissed. But in the long run, it’s sure to give you a lot less heartache.
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A long list of traits that can make someone a bad match could be arrayed from A (anger-management problems) to Z (zero interest in your feelings). Perhaps the most obvious, though, is already being in a relationship. Social scientists believe that a tendency to fall for the unavailable comes from “mate-choice copying.” One of the ways humans gauge attractiveness is with market signals: who else likes that person. Researchers have found that both men and women consider a person more attractive when that potential mate is already paired with an attractive person. In one 2009 study, single, heterosexual undergraduate women were shown a picture and description of a man. Some were told he was currently in a relationship; others were told he was single. Women in the former group expressed interest in pursuing the man, on average, more than four times as much as those who were told the man was single.
Other people have a habit of choosing partners who cannot manage an addiction to drugs, alcohol, or other destructive substances and behaviors. Evidence shows that such an attraction might be connected with someone’s childhood. One study from 2009 found that, for example, “nonalcoholic daughters of alcoholics were more than twice as likely to marry an alcoholic as nonalcoholic daughters of nonalcoholics.” In many cases, a partner’s uncontrolled alcohol abuse leads to psychological, physical, and social trauma, and the divorce rate is 18 percentage points higher than among nonalcoholic couples.
Relationships can also suffer when one partner has a lot of difficult personality traits. But some people find them irresistible, especially the so-called Dark Triad of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. People with Dark Triad traits tend to be callous and manipulative; have an inflated view of themselves and shamelessly self-promote; and be willing to deceive to get their way. As nasty as that combination sounds, such people can be alluring. They can be perceived as physically attractive, charming, and even funny. They do especially well in short-term mating situations based on first impressions (read: hookups), and with partners who fall in love easily — so-called emophilics.
None of this is brain surgery. It’s pretty obvious that you shouldn’t date a married person or a psychopath. Yet people override their own judgment and do so anyway, some over and over again. One possible explanation rests on the belief-disconfirmation paradigm, which posits that people tend to resolve conflicting beliefs or emotions by rejecting one of them. “I feel love for this person” conflicts with “I saw him shoplifting.” The first cognition is pleasant, but is inconsistent with the second, so the path of least resistance, for some people, is simply to disregard or reason away the second.
If you have found yourself chasing unavailable people, narcissists, or some other inappropriate type, you might be tempted to despair, or conclude that you simply aren’t attracted to suitable potential mates. Before throwing in the towel — and certainly before dating another Machiavellian psychopath — consider the following five strategies.
1. Ignore the things that others find attractive.
Mate-choice copying is a form of social comparison, in which you assess your own worth and develop your views based on the opinions of others. This is a terrible way to live your life in general, and an especially poor way to find a partner — not just because it requires competition and strife, but because it makes setting your own standards and tastes harder. When considering a match, ask yourself, “Do I like this person ?,” not, “Would my friends date her?” or “What will people think of me?”
2. Address your emophilia.
If you fall in love at the drop of a hat, figure out why — with the help of a therapist if necessary. Emophilia is associated with indiscriminate romantic bonds, and multiple engagements and marriages (indicating, of course, multiple failed ones). Emophilics are at high risk of toxic relationships with manipulative partners. As much as “love at first sight” is celebrated in pop culture, it is not healthy. If you think you are emophilic, adopt some boundaries, such as avoiding declarations of love or intimate activity for a certain period after you meet someone — a length of time that should feel uncomfortably long to you.
3. Expand your time horizon.
When you think of a romance, what is the timeline over which you imagine it? A week in Ibiza? The semester? The rest of your life? The shorter the duration you envision, the greater your risk of selecting bad partners. Psychologists writing in The Journal of Sex Research in 2018 compared adults’ mating time frames with the personality of their mates and concluded that those who are psychopathic or sadistic are more likely to seek short-term relationships, possibly increasing their share in the short-term dating pool. Not even Ibiza can make dating a sadist fun.
4. Focus on things that aren’t looks and status.
One of the best ways to snag mates with Dark Triad personalities is to date primarily based on surface-level characteristics, such as money, power, and physical attractiveness. If you find yourself with one narcissist after another, this may be why. Remember, bad people can be good at appearing attractive, charming, and persuasive. As researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, choosing mates this way doesn’t generally deliver the partner you really want. Good teeth and a high-paying job do not predict faithfulness and kindness. Seek out evidence of the latter.
5. Stop looking for your ex.
Research shows that people tend to wind up with the same kind of partner over and over again. But whom you date is at least partly up to you. If you find yourself stuck in a harmful dating pattern, write up your exes’ troublesome traits, then describe someone who has the opposite virtues, and think about where you might find them. This can be pretty straightforward. If alcohol has created problems in your past relationships, for example, you might decide to stop dating people you meet in bars.
To really stop entering into unhealthy relationships, of course, you have to want to stop. This can be difficult in a culture that romanticizes doomed love. Poets have long elegized the turmoil of unhealthy romance. “You left me Boundaries of Pain – / Capacious as the Sea -,” Emily Dickinson wrote. “Between Eternity and Time – / Your Consciousness – and me -.”
Nice writing, but a bad model on which to base a relationship. Inducing misery through unhealthy dating habits is no more romantic than repeatedly hitting your hand with a hammer. Skip the poetry, and solve the problem so you can get on to the real love you want and deserve.