When dating, many people notice they tend to be attracted to the same “type.” There are physical types, sure ― tall, dark and bearded, for instance ― but also personality types. Maybe you’re drawn to the quiet, mysterious type. Or the vivacious, extroverted type that somehow manages to get you out on a Friday night.
For Lindsey Oliver, a design specialist from Durham, North Carolina, it’s a rare occasion when she strays from her type. She’s almost exclusively drawn to passionate and oftentimes emotionally volatile women.
“I’ve had multiple instances where my friends have warned me that someone I have a crush on may not be particularly emotionally stable,” she told HuffPost. “In retrospect, I feel like I’ve ignored every red flag because I’m hopelessly optimistic about them.”
That tendency to fall for the same kind of person time and time again (even if they’re not the healthiest match) isn’t just common; it’s now recognized by scientists. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that most of us really do have a “type” when it comes to the personalities of our romantic partners. The researchers examined interviews with the current and former partners of hundreds of people to reach this conclusion.
Why talk to people’s exes instead of asking them directly? Previous research on the topic actually did rely on self-reported data about past relationships, but that’s a slightly problematic approach, said Yoobin Park, a lead researcher of the new study and a Ph.D. student in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto.
If a person has any lingering negative feelings toward an ex, they’re probably not going to give a fair assessment of that person’s personality.
“If you ask people to self-report, they may exaggerate the negative aspects of their ex-partners (e.g., ‘they were really clumsy’), and we may end up finding similarity between the exes just because of the participant’s tendency to describe them negatively,” she explained.
To skirt the issue, Park and her co-author Geoff MacDonald looked at the German Family Panel study, a multi-year ongoing survey of German adults across several age groups. The survey includes interviews with both primary survey participants and their current and former flames. If a primary participant breaks up and finds another partner, the new S.O. gets interviewed and that data is added to the participant’s file.
The 332 primary participants (along with their respective exes and current partners) were asked to describe their levels of what’s known by psychologists as “the big five” personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience. (On a scale of 1 to 5, participants were asked how much they agreed with a series of statements such as, “I am usually modest and reserved,” “I am interested in many different kinds of things” and “I make plans and carry them out.”)
Analyzing the collected data, Park and MacDonald found that, overall, the primary participants’ current partners described themselves very similarly to their past partners. (And their responses reflected something more than the participant’s tendency to date someone similar to themselves, Park said.)
“It’s interesting because we often see people who, following a breakup, think that they have a better idea about who they want or need as a partner,” Park said. “Sometimes they’re looking for a person that’s not necessarily the same type of person as their ex.”
The results from this study, though, suggest there’s consistency in our partners’ personalities.
“The findings are potentially a positive if you can put the lessons and communication strategies you learned in your past relationships to use with your new S.O.”
The partner association was weaker, though still present, for people who scored high on extroversion and openness to new experience. (Apparently, variety is the spice of life for these folks, even when it comes to partners.)
If you’ve had a string of toxic exes, you might be rolling your eyes right now. But having a “type” isn’t inherently good or bad, Park said. Yes, similarities in partners might make you feel hopeless or frustrated when you encounter the same problems and challenges with a new partner. (“I knew this was going to happen,” you might think. “Same issues, different person.”)
But it’s potentially a positive if you can put the lessons and communication strategies you learned in your past relationships to use with your new S.O. (Think of it this way: Same issues, different person, smarter response.)
“Using that knowledge can improve your relationship quality,” Park said. “Plus, the sense of familiarity can also facilitate the couple’s bonding.”
If your “type” really has been problematic in the past ― or you have a long history of breakups ― don’t freak out about these findings. Instead, tinker and adjust your “type” and look for someone who fits your criteria while also possessing healthier traits and habits. That’s what Oliver, the aforementioned design pro who’s attracted to passionate women, has learned to do.
“I recognized that I am interested in women who are deeply passionate, but it took these failed experiences to realize that someone can have deep emotions and express complex feelings without being toxic and draining to me,” she said. “So now I’m trying to simultaneously embrace and buck my ‘type,’ just by reframing it a little.”
Sounds like a smart strategy.