Dating The Same Asshole Over and Over Again

Last week, I was listening to Ani DiFranco’s song “Little Plastic Castle.” And while I’ve heard this song many times before, this time, I was struck by the title and lyrics. One particular line of the song made me re-frame how I look at relationships and the mistakes some us repeatedly make when we become attracted to or enter into a relationship with the type of people who have already proven to be toxic for us.

In the song, DiFranco sings, “And they say, “goldfish have no memory”/I guess their lives are much like mine/And the little plastic castle/Is a surprise every time…”

While the idea of goldfish having no memory is a myth, I am particularly interested in the imagery of the little plastic castle and the goldfish that forgets about its presence, every time it encounters the castle. For those of us who acknowledge or understand our chronic relationship or attraction patterns (many of us still haven’t recognized that we keep going after the same type of person), we are essentially the goldfish of Ani DiFranco’s song. And the people we are attracted to or enter into relationships with, are the multitudes of little plastic castles. Despite the fact that we have seen that castle, that kind of man, and that kind of relationship, many times before, each new relationship or new attraction seems so fresh.

Why do we keep making the same mistakes when it comes to relationships and love? Why is that little plastic castle–the person we are dating or seeking out–a surprise to us, especially when we have been hurt by the same type of person before? Why don’t we actively apply the lessons gained from our previous mistakes when we are faced with a person who fits the mold of those previous partners or attractions?

Meet Amy, aged 35. Amy has never dated a man who she didn’t think she could fix. She’s seen them all: mommy issues, daddy issues, emotionally remote, emotionally volatile. And repeatedly, over the past 10 years of actively dating, she thinks she is going to be the one–the woman who finally “gets them,” and helps them heal their old wounds. But she hasn’t been, instead she’s been left hanging, left exhausted after giving everything, and left empty because she has nothing left of herself.

“My friends say that I can spot them a mile away, they’re never difficult or erratic when I first date them, but as soon as I hear something like ‘it’s hard for me to…’ or ‘My dad wasn’t around…’ I glom on to them.

Amy wants to provide these men with the love and comfort she thinks they need to be better and she is convinced that by sticking around she is just proving her loyalty.

There’s no doubt that in any healthy relationship, your partner should bring out the best version of yourself by helping you heal previous wounds. However, the difference between Amy’s relationships and a healthy one, is a lack of investment made by her partners in improving their own lives and more importantly, a lack of reciprocation in helping Amy improve hers. In Amy’s case, it was always a one-way investment.

So why does Amy keep going back to the same type of man? There are many reasons, not just one simple explanation. However, in this column, I explore something that Amy is definitely not doing to prevent herself from going back to the same type of man: she’s not working to remember how those previous men and those previous relationships truly made her feel. She’s just focused on how her present man makes her feel, which in the initial stages of dating, is always great.

Of course the difference between Amy and the goldfish in DiFranco’s song is the reality of familiarity. Amy (and all of us in this position) know we have been there before, and sometimes, we can even say “here I go again…” But we don’t stop ourselves, because it just feels so comforting, doesn’t it?

A few months ago, I wrote a piece about why we can’t learn from other people’s mistakes–that we often have to make our own mistakes. And in it, I explored how we truly can’t learn from other people’s mistakes when it comes to matters of passion, of the heart.


While people can discuss how a mistake (think dating unavailable people or staying in toxic relationships for too long) makes them feel, there’s no way to truly understand such an experience until you actually feel the pain, anger, sadness, disappointment yourself.

But that’s about other people’s mistakes. When it comes to romance, we usually acknowledge or notice when we keep making the same mistakes, over and over again. But acknowledging the mistake simply isn’t enough, especially if we push aside all of the feelings that come with those mistakes. When we are faced with someone possessing the same toxic elements that have gotten us in trouble in the past, we only hold onto the good stuff that we enjoyed about our previous attractions.

Working to remember what it felt like to engage with the same kind of men who have destroyed us in the past, is critical to avoiding the same mistakes again. Our memories come with physical sensations. When we work to remember the stress of our previous, unhealthy relationship, we are also reminded of the physical feelings of stress, unhappiness, disappointment.

Heather, who is 39, intimately knows and has experienced those physical feelings. She has a strong affinity for unavailable men: ones who are willing to date and enter relationships while remaining emotionally unavailable and ones who are quite literally unavailable because they are in other relationships, not interested in being with her, or sometimes…gay.

Heather didn’t want someone to get too close, so she consciously or unconsciously goes after men who wouldn’t be interested in providing elements of a healthy relationship. When it comes to romantic relationships, Heather’s pattern of behavior was built around pursuing men who could never commit, and thus, could never serve as a real partner in a real relationship.

But she would repeatedly end up in these situations and when the attraction finally ended or when she walked away from the guy, she was left feeling stressed out, lonely, angry, and sick. But when a new guy with the same traits comes around, she refuses to to conjure up those terrible physical feelings.

So why is it so bad to be that seemingly carefree goldfish? Isn’t life about learning and living? It is, but when we get stuck in a consistent relationship pattern, it becomes harder and harder to get unstuck. It becomes an addiction of sorts, in which we know no other way of being, and we fail, sometimes literally, to see the array of healthy romantic options around us because our minds are so stuck in one pattern.

I’ve learned over the past year, the only way to stop repeating the mistake is to not give in and say, “Oh, here we go again.” Instead, I started working hard to remember how my past experiences have left me feeling. In order to get myself out of an unhealthy behavioral pattern, I conjure up the crappy emotions that have come, in the past, with making that mistake. And after I remember all the bad moments, the physical feelings of loneliness, stress, disappointment, I know and realize that I don’t want to put myself back in the same situation.

Just remembering my past experiences, I can feel my shoulders getting tense, I can feel the emptiness, I can remember all the time it took me to move on, and I see that repeating the same mistake isn’t going to be worth it.

The importance of conjuring up the emotions around a pattern of behavior isn’t just limited to romantic partners. It can be about anything we truly don’t want to do or know is bad for us. Think about committing to a friend staying with you for an extended period of time or putting a family vacation on the books. How did you feel the last time you made similar commitments? Initially, it may have been enticing, but as you got closer to the time of the actual commitment, you may have asked yourself, “Oh god, why did I say yes to them?” If your previous experiences caused you stress, made your shoulders tense up, created unhappiness and havoc in your life, make the decision to avoid recreating those memories in real time, again.

In hopes that the little plastic castle isn’t a surprise anymore, just remember, it’s exactly what you know, you’ve been there before, you’ve felt it before, and it’s a shit show every time.

But it’s so much more fun to forget, isn’t it?

Until it’s not.

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7 Responses to “Dating The Same Asshole Over and Over Again”

  1. Avatar of Bludogdancing
    Bludogdancing February 23, 2012 at 2:23 am #

    Your cognitive approach, to associate a person stirring up positive feelings now with the negative feelings and experiences the same kind of person gave you previously is pretty powerful and has a long history in the field of Cognitive Behavioural Therapies. It is a strategy that can help us create different response patterns and processing pathways. It doesn’t explain to us “why”.

    Attachment Theory does a pretty good job of explaining how the patterns of relationship we are trained to be part of at home become our ongoing template for feeling “at home” in a relationship even when we DON’T enjoy that relationship.

    Now it takes a fair bit of honesty, and a willingness to grieve for what we lose in this insight, to recognise that the damaging partner pattern we wish we could avoid is an echo of the damaging parenting we were given.

    How often in the early throes of a new connection do we hear, or say something like, “It feels like I’ve known him/her forever.” or “It feels so natural, so easy, so right.” ?? Of course it feels natural easy and right, of course it feels like something we’ve known from birth – we have. The person triggering those feelings in us is radiating the same signals and behaviours and attitudes we grew up with from one or both of our parents. That’s where the power comes from, attachment to parents, even bad parents, is hard wired into us and we unconsciously keep seeking the certainties of our childhood relationships even when our logical mind rejects that same childhood experience.

    If you had a fundamentally healthy set of parents then your “feels like I’ve known him forever” will be about a good guy. If you keep giving yourself to a series of damaging, selfish, draining or demeaning partners then some part of that is waiting for you to see in your own experience of one or both of your parents.

    When you see THAT – something primal may well shift inside you because do any of us really want to partner up with our parent?

  2. Avatar of JustSeeking
    JustSeeking February 15, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    In my experience in working to get out of unhealthy relationship patterns, I have learned two things that I want to mention here. First, my trap is the kind of man I call a Hero. He wants to save me from myself/the world/whatever, because I am pathetic and unwanted (my fears). On his side of it, he secretly doesn’t believe himself to be adequate to the task and his Hero behavior is about attempting to prove otherwise. On my side of it, I am afraid my hero will go away and leave me alone (which he always does in order to avoid failing in his heroics), so I do whatever he wants me to do (in an attempt to get control of his leaving behavior) to assuage *his* fear of not being good enough. It’s a nasty cycle, and it’s based on fear fear fear.

    Second, understanding one’s own fears is the key, in my opinion. My primary fears in my relationships and in life have been about losing control and being worthless. I have spent much of my life believing that I was worth nothing if I didn’t give up what was between my legs. At the end of my marriage I felt that I had been a whore because I had given up my body for the roof over my head and the food in my belly. My husband was that “not there” with me.

    I also fear being vulnerable in a way I still can’t describe to myself. When I have opened myself to others in my life, they have ripped me to shreds emotionally. This is true of both men and women, but I think especially of my own sex…women. Trusting others is very hard for me, and this is the primary issue that I am attempting to work through in my life at this time. Even while I know now that there is nothing wrong with me, I still say things to myself like, “I don’t want to inflict my issues on other people.”

    This isn’t about a battle of the sexes to me any more. It is about self-love and letting me be who I truly am no matter how others react to me. The people around me are still trying to beat me into submission, and more often than I like they succeed, but I refuse to give up. If that means I die alone, then so be it.

  3. Avatar of Kris
    Kris February 14, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    So appropriate for Valentine’s day. I think a lot of people are sitting at home feeling sad and lonely. Personally the only thing worse than being alone is being with the wrong person. The loneliest moments in my Life have been with a man in my Life and in fact with in inches of me.

    I was the woman in your post for many years. If you ask me how I broke free, I’m not really sure. I am single. I find myself very single but I embrace it. Maybe that’s why? I am not afraid anymore to pass up on the wrong guy because I will be alone. I did alot of soul searching to get there. I did a lot of spending time alone, however spending time alone has never scared me. I read some great books. One book, and think it applies to the exapmle of the woman who wanst to fix and save everyone, was Codependent No More by Melody Beattie. Her book helped me immensely!!!!! Changed my Life. I found out I was a codependent when my marriage crashed because of my husbands addiction. Reading her book was extremely hard. It’s a very critical self evaluation process that one goes through throughout the book.

    Maybe that is the key here. I have learned that no matter who you are, what happened in your relationship, including you self proclaimed “victims” out there, every one involved in a relationship has a fault or contribution to its downfall. I never go through a breakup without a period of time alone to reflect on the problems and reasons for it’s failure. A self critique. I get in touch with reality.

    Another book that helped me along the way was It’s Called a Breakup Because it’s Broken by Greg Behrendt, Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt. They wrote that book He’s Not That Into You. This other book is way better than that one. I helps the reader put the breakup into prespective and leads you to see and remember the reality of the relaionship rather than glamorize it and forget how toxic it was. Hence preventing you from repaeting the same mistakes.

    Anyway great post. It definitely applies to both men and women.

  4. Avatar of yourspiritualtruth
    yourspiritualtruth February 13, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    Along with seeking men we can “fix,” I’ve also observed a pattern both within myself and with many of my female clients (though I suspect this pattern is present among men as well). I call it the “Rockstar.” The “Rockstar” is the man that when you first see him, locks eyes with you and seems to look deep into your soul. As women, we think the look means “I love you” when in fact (and what we often discover when it is WAY too late)….that look really says, “Yep, I see you looking at me….and I want you…..for now.” It is a look that in the end has nothing to do with love, honor or respect, but has everything to do with possession. This is the man who has to have power over you and will wield it in whatever way he can….through emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical and even sexual abuse. It starts out subtle in little things like the questions, “You’re wearing that?!” or “Why don’t you grow out your bangs?” or “No one wears blue eyeliner anymore.” Then over the course of weeks, or months or maybe years….it grows into an on-going pattern of degradation and manipulation. It is not a relationship of mutual love and respect, but one that has only to do with meeting the needs of “him.” Women (or men) who are stuck in this pattern are unable to recognize the pattern when it presents itself and are unable to identify men or women who could be potentially healthy and good for them. In order to be freed of this pattern, first we have to identify it and STAY AWAY from the Rockstars…..then, we have to be willing to see the men we encounter through different eyes, looking beyond initial appearances to the person inside. This is where we will find the men who are most able and willing to enter into a relationship of mutual love, honor and respect.

    Lauri Lumby
    Authentic Freedom Ministries

  5. Avatar of peuple
    peuple February 13, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    let’s take this a step further and ask these women WHY they are attracted to these men and WHY not work on that issue/issues in order to be healthy for themselves, (first) in order to BE in a healthy relationship (second)?


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