• Have you ever wondered why we are drawn to partners who cause us pain? 

  • Relationship coach Susan Quilliam explores this phenomenon and has advice on how to move on

  • If you are looking for a therapist, you can find one here

Sometimes we get drawn to partners not because they could give us something wonderful but because they could give us something terrible – in the hope that they may also give us the chance to overcome that terror. So we may choose someone who reminds us how withdrawn our father was or how dominating our mother was, someone who creates demanding situations that remind us of exam failure in school or the time we got made redundant from work. We find all this painful but familiar, troubling but known; we aim, this time, to resolve, to cope, to survive.

And it often comes good. Often, we get to turn things round, to cope with challenges in later life in a way we didn’t in earlier life because we are now older and wiser. And the fact that we cope not only gives us victory here and now, but helps to resolve the previous sense of failure. The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote that ‘people use each other as a healing for their pain’ – but in this case we are actively choosing each other for the pain, in hopes of getting the healing as part of the package.

Think back to your early life. Which people or events made you feel unloved or taught you hard lessons about what it means to relate to others? Do these memories link to your adult partners and the experiences you have had with them? What does that tell you about your partner-search strategies?

There is also, of course, the impact of life events so traumatic that they create a deep vulnerability in us, so we end wary, grief-stricken, furious or in some way simply too wounded to make good partnership decisions. We may be confused about what love means, unable to recognise it when it happens, unresourced to take it when offered or give it when needed. The obvious – and publicised – traumas are bullying, abuse and violence, but other seemingly less serious occurrences can wound us too. If our world rocks on its axis – perhaps from a house move, a hospital stay, an absent parent – we can end up thinking love will let us down. If as a child the only way we got any attention was when we were punished for bad behaviour, we may end up prone to tantrums in our relationships. The shock has not only broken our spirit, but dented our capacity to make good partner decisions.

Moving on

All the above works both ways. For our partners too the ‘past is prologue’, as Shakespeare wrote, and what happened in a partner’s life before the scenes they write with us affects not only who they are but also who they are when with us.

Partners steer their course by their own love maps, make their own transferences, have their own stream of negative or traumatic characters and episodes from their own lives. So they may choose us because our ways of being wonderful reminds them of wonderful people and events in their past, or because our ways of being difficult remind them of difficult people and events in their past. They too may need to align their expectations, to work through the difference between their hallucination and the reality that is us – and to cope when we deliver the pain that they unconsciously wanted to resolve through being with us.

If a partner seems to be reacting in a way that says more about their history than about the present reality of our relationship, it’s worthwhile paying close attention. It is not all bad news. Though it’s tempting to believe that everything that comes to us from the past is detrimental, it’s not so.

Normal, kind, human love from those around us – whether given in childhood or in adulthood – not only provides us with solid ground for loving but goes a long way to redress any harm that comes our way. And while single intense experiences of betrayal can wound us, similar experiences of happiness, acceptance, success and security can emotionally vaccinate us against mistakes. For most of us, past bad experiences are not a car crash on the relationship road, but simply a bump on the way.

Lessons in love

Plus, we don’t have to bring the past with us into the present. We can keep the bits that seem more helpful and most healthy; the others we can throw overboard. To which end, you may want to look back at all the lessons you’ve ever learned about love. Which messages are horribly outdated and need to be junked? Which are irrelevant to you now you’re a grown-up? Which messages are so idealistic or perfectionist that no one has the slightest chance of matching up to them, and by continuing to try to match up, you are simply feeding your guilt monkey? Which were taught to you by people whose experience is not yours, whose word you no longer believe, or whose life you have no intention of living? Which lessons did you learn through events that were so painful that you need to cull them from your memory bank?

We can cull. With new awareness we can unbelieve our past beliefs, let them go and take on board a new and more helpful set. And if we can’t do that alone, it’s entirely possible – and utterly wise – to get help; there is a wealth of knowledge and guidance to help us overcome relationship issues. So if you suspect that some events or people have left you vulnerable to wrong choices or misguided decisions, let me encourage – even beg – you to see a professional. We can’t change the life we’ve lived, but we can rethink it, understand it differently and so resolve the pain.

Confucius said that the past needs to be studied in order for us to define the future. Once studied, though, we may want to complete the lesson and move on.

Susan Quilliam is the author of How to Choose a Partner

Further reading

On feelings, closeness and intimacy

Dear therapist..."I'm scared I'll never find a partner"

Why is intimacy so complicated?

What is healthy love?