Deborah's love life has always been rocky. First there was Mark, a successful businessman with a raging alcohol problem. Dan was loyal and intelligent, but his need for constant attention drove them apart. Then there was Doug, a kind-hearted Southern boy who seemed to break the mold, until she found out he was married with two kids. Notice a pattern?
Every time Deborah gets into a relationship, she's sure this time she found a good one, only to discover months later that she has succumbed to the same familiar pattern. He's unavailable. She's too needy. And now she's in her 40s and unhappily single.
Why do some people repeat the same relationship mistakes over and over? Here are five likely culprits:
#1: A Dysfunctional Family
Ironically, our relationship future can be closely tied to our relationship past. That's because we learn what intimacy is from our early relationships and are drawn, consciously or unconsciously, to what we know.
Children who grow up taking care of a parent with a chronic illness may be disconnected from their feelings. Having rigid, overly-controlling parents can make it difficult for children -- and later, adults -- to make decisions, while neglectful or uninvolved parents may raise individuals with a strong need for attention. Although the problem started in childhood, its effects can linger long into adulthood, often in the form of mistrust, a need for control, or difficulty building and maintaining relationships.
While no childhood is perfect, certain types of dysfunction tend to get played out in relationships. Take addiction, for example. Studies show that kids who grow up in alcoholic families bring the problems of their youth into their grown-up romantic relationships. Children of alcoholics tend to marry into families with alcohol problems. Daughters of alcoholics are more than twice as likely to marry an alcoholic as daughters of non alcoholics. When choosing a partner, we go with what we know.
#2: Childhood Trauma
Physical, emotional or sexual abuse in childhood can have lifelong effects. In relationships, survivors of early trauma often struggle with social isolation, attachment problems and inability to trust. If they are able to commit to a serious relationship, their partners may complain that they are needlessly jealous or insecure.
As many as 80 percent of abused children meet the criteria for a mental health disorder at age 21 -- depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders being among the most common. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as many as two-thirds of patients in addiction treatment programs were abused as children. All of these disorders can compound the difficulties abused children experience in adult relationships. For many, the cycle of abuse doesn't end with them. According to some estimates, one-third of abused children go on to abuse their own children. Others find themselves continually seeking out abusive or unavailable partners, subconsciously trying to recreate the childhood trauma so it can be resolved. Unfortunately, the usual outcome isn't the ability to rewrite history, but rather more rejection and trauma.
#3: Love Addiction
Genuine intimacy is impossible for people actively struggling with relationship, romance or love addiction. That's because love addicts are repeatedly drawn to people who can't express their feelings, are afraid of commitment or are otherwise emotionally unavailable. They use sex and other schemes to keep a partner around, fearing that they'll be worthless without someone to care for them.
Despite a long history of chaotic relationships, love addicts continue desperately searching for "the one," falling in and out of love quickly and sometimes clinging to a partner who falls far short of their standards. Love addiction can be treated, usually by addressing trauma or dysfunction from childhood and learning what healthy intimacy looks like.
#4: Unrealistic Expectations
Our expectations surrounding sex and relationships are always evolving, perhaps never more so than in the digital age. As a result of the explosion in free, easily-accessible online porn, adultery websites, smartphone apps and other media, we are left asking, "Did the Internet kill Cupid?"
As little as a decade ago, people had to work hard to view X-rated images, get a date and embark on a sexual relationship. Now, married or single, gay or straight, young or old, there are endless opportunities online to get these things anywhere, any time. The Internet has been a savior for some, but it has been destructive for some people with a history of trauma or who are prone to addiction.
The digital generation is growing up on porn, regularly viewing images that alter their expectations of real-life partners. By age 11, most children have been exposed to pornography. Possibly because of the images they see of super-sized, always ready and willing porn stars, young people are struggling with sexual dysfunction and loss of interest in real-life partners.
#5: Mental Health Disorders
Having a mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety or borderline personality disorder can make romantic relationships challenging. Building the confidence and trust to get into a relationship is one hurdle, followed by day-to-day struggles with anger, sadness and other emotions. Then there's the break-up, which can be not only heartbreaking but also threaten the individual's ability to effectively manage their illness.
Navigating the realm of sex and intimacy can be complex. In one study, people with mental illness were more likely than those without mental illness to have multiple partners at one time and shorter relationships. They were also sexually intimate sooner. With proper treatment and self-care, people who struggle with mental illness can have healthy, stable relationships, but it requires ongoing effort and a supportive partner.
Next time you embark on a romantic relationship, look beyond the simple excuses of "I just attract the wrong kind of guy" or "the heart wants what it wants," and answer honestly: Why were you attracted to this person? If it's not because of their quality of character and your mutual respect for one another but rather your matching baggage, you may be walking into yet another heartbreak. What's familiar may be comfortable, but it isn't always the best choice. Only when you address the underlying issues can you begin making healthier choices and healing your own wounds from the past.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment programs that includes Promises Treatment Centers, The Ranch, The Sexual Recovery Institute, Right Step, and The Recovery Place.
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