Why some people seek out dysfunctional relationships

Konrad Lorenz, who is credited with identifying imprinting

When ducklings hatch, they take one look at the adult who is looking after them and they form an attachment, following the adult around wherever it goes – this is called imprinting. Usually the adult is the mummy duck, but if a human is feeding the ducklings in her place, they’ll follow the human around.

This is not controversial – it makes sense that there would be a biologically programmed instinct to keep ducklings from running off in all directions as soon as they’re born because they’re much more likely to survive if they stick close to their care-giver. But, importantly, this early attachment has been found to affect all kinds of behaviour, even in adulthood.

The Internal Working Model

Obviously humans are capable of much more complex thought and language than ducks, so the imprinting mechanism in humans is also more complex. In humans, it’s called attachment.

Let's take you as an example. In the first few years of life, your main concern was food, sleep and comfort, but you were entirely dependent on your parents / caregivers to supply this. So the interactions you had with your parents were really, really important to you. Not surprising then, that you worked hard to make sense of how it all worked: in your mind, you built up what’s known as an Internal Working Model to represent and make sense of this social world.

The Internal Working Model represents an infant's growing understanding of the significant people around them (How good are my parents at responding when I need something?) and of themselves (How worthy of affection am I?). You can see how the two things are related.

But here’s the important thing – that Internal Working Model stays with you into adult life – not like a computer programme that dictates exactly what you do, but it’s there in the background. And it has a lot to say about your choice of romantic partner, and the way you respond to your partner in a relationship: How worthy of affection am I? How much can I trust other people to respond to my needs?

In adulthood, it becomes more useful to think about the Internal Working Model (let's call it the IWM) as operating along two dimensions: anxiety and avoidance. They can help explain differences in the way we’re likely to seek and respond to a romantic partner.


If you had parents who were really unpredictable – sometimes they would be right there for you, sometimes they would totally fail to realise you needed feeding, sometimes they would be over-protective, sometimes they would leave you on your own – that would have made you anxious. It would mean that you probably didn’t want to let them out of your sight because, if you did, you had no way of knowing when you might see them again. It would also mean that you really had to crank up the distress signals when you needed something because these parents are not picking up on any subtle signs of discomfort or distress.

Fast forward so that that same infant is now a young adult on the look-out for a romantic partner. This is the boy who over-commits too early and then gets frustrated because his girlfriend won’t spend every waking hour with him. Why? Because the over-commitment comes from his IWM which has learned that you have to crank the signals right up in order to get affection. And the need to stick close to his girlfriend stems from the infant who didn't like to let his parents out of his sight because he doesn’t know when he’d see them again.

It’s also the girl who is more likely to go along with unwanted sex because, again, the IWM is there saying that she needs to give out completely unsubtle signals to get, and hold onto, the attention of those she wants to keep close.

It’s the jealous, insecure, needy partner who bases their own self-worth on physical appearance and gaining compliments. It’s the person whose constant need for reassurance can cause conflict with their partner. But, although conflict may be threatening to them, they may also see conflict as a good thing – an opportunity to become closer to their partner, to get under their skin and get their full, unadulterated attention. Of course, these short-term conflict ‘gains’ turn negative as, in the end, the partner never quite lives up to their needs.


Let’s take a different infant, with a very different early experience. This time the parents show very little affection – they are cold and distant. There is no unpredictability here – there are no sudden moments of affection or over-protection – just constant low-level rejection. The infant quickly learns that it's pointless showing distress because that never works, in fact, it may even make things worse as the parent becomes angry. It’s also better to avoid trying to seek affection because that will just increase the chances of rejection. In short, the infant’s IWM constructs a world where they see compulsive self-reliance as the best way to survive.

It’s not hard to see how this infant’s IWM will affect them as a young adult in search of a partner. This is the girl who finds it hard to trust – and therefore commitment to – a boyfriend. When in a relationship, it's the boyfriend who will be less caring and supportive when his girlfriend needs support, and who will be much more likely to bottle things up and not tell his girlfriend when he is suffering.

This is the girl who has causal sex with someone outside of her current relationship because it has the dual benefit of being an anonymous, unemotional experience, and it also reassures her that she is not dependent on her boyfriend. It is the boyfriend who seems not to care what anyone says about him but, in fact, is highly affected by small acts of rejection or criticism.

Breaking Out or Staying Familiar

The good news is that you are not a puppet having your emotional strings jerked around by the all-powerful IWM in your unconscious mind. You know a lot of what happened when you were young and you can make a lot of choices now about how you respond to these early experiences.

But there are also some hard facts which, although at the extreme end of the spectrum, highlight one of the dangers of the IWM and its influence on partner choice. According to the Office for National Statistics, more than half of adults in the UK who were abused in some way as children enter adult relationships where they experience domestic abuse. Even witnessing domestic abuse as a child in the home dramatically increases the likelihood that the same person will experience abuse by a partner as an adult (34% compared with 11% who did not witness domestic abuse).

The IWM is one of the most effective ways of explaining this fact. It would argue that some people have learned, as a child, that intimate relationships are abusive. That’s their Internal Working Model of intimate relationships. And so abusive adult relationships, although painful and horrible, never-the-less feel familiar. And that familiarity feels ‘right’.

Think back to the anxious person who experienced unpredictable parenting. The IWM is working away telling them that they are not really worthy of love, so finding someone who will be kind and loving just doesn’t fit. The person who hits them or constantly criticises them – that’s the ‘correct’ fit for someone who has learned that they are pretty much worthless.

That’s one reason why the abused child may seek out an abusive adult partner.

So, should I stop dating people like my parents?

The answer to this is: it depends. If you have had a warm, loving relationship with your parents then finding someone who resembles that warmth and love is no bad thing at all.

If, however, you have had a difficult relationship with one or more of your parents – especially the opposite-sex parent – then you need to be more careful. You can, and should, look for a partner who will not give you the same difficulties in love.

But the most important thing is that you are aware of your IWM. Think about what you have learned about your own self-worth, think about what you have learned to expect from a romantic partner, think about what you find familiar. Where possible, forgive your parents for any short-comings. Take the very best of the love they have shown you and demand that from your partner.

Pay attention to the ways in which your parents' love and care for you was not as it could’ve been and avoid taking refuge in the familiarity of their failings by finding a partner who treats you in the same way. You are a unique, beautiful person who is capable of unbounded love and, whilst being forgiving of human frailty, you should never settle for anyone who fails to see how amazing you are and to love you unconditionally for being you.