"I always say I want a committed relationship," says Kate, a 31-year- old teacher living in London. "Yet I go for the man who's terrified of settling down. Now I realise my last four boyfriends have all been like my father - remote and uninterested." Self-awareness is all well and good, yet knowledge never seems to be a cure in itself. Kate, like many others at her stage in life, is au fait with what types she's drawn to and why. Yet, at an unconscious level, she isn't able to change one bit. Not that she hasn't tried.
"I deliberately went for someone different in my last relationship," says Kate. "Chris was successful and ambitious whereas my previous boyfriend was a hippie. Chris was also flirtatious and extrovert; the last one was shy and reserved." Yet within weeks all the patterns were re-emerging. "He told me very early on he didn't want to settle down or have children. Like my previous boyfriend, he loved travelling - this time for his work - and used it as a way of distancing himself. But I failed to see the clues." He finished the relationship six months later - "he said he wanted to preserve his freedom".
Caroline, 28 and an interior designer, is also trapped in what she views as a self-destructive pattern. She sums up the last decade of boyfriends succinctly. "They've either been wimps or bastards." Caroline now realises that she veers between relationships where she has complete control or none at all. "I've never been attracted to any particular type in terms of looks, background or even personality. I like all sorts of different people. But after a year of going out with someone, the same old problems crop up. They're too committed or never there. The trouble is as I get older and more cynical I can't imagine it any other way."
Some of her partners have been younger, some older, but the end result has always been depressingly predictable. "I've never been able to find the right balance of power - I lose respect for them because they're so weak, or they dominate the relationship and make the rules."
So why the contradiction between what people want and what they get? According to Denise Knowles, counsellor at Relate, repeating patterns often reflects an inner conflict. "Consciously, we may be out to change things, but unconsciously we pick behavioural traits that we feel comfortable with." In Kate's case, she's used to men who need to keep their distance. Knowles says, "If we're not shown affection then a pattern develops from that. We say we'd love to have someone who lavishes attention on us, but in reality it may feel suffocating and uncomfortable."
This is one reason why certain types attract one another - they unwittingly make a beeline for those who seem familiar. Recent American research, based on interviews with over 300 couples, bears this out. Dr Maryon Tysoe, social psychologist and author of The Good Relationship Guide, explains that the US data divides relationship "types" into three categories: the secure group, who are comfortable with closeness; the anxious ones who worry whether their partners really love them; and the avoidents who fear intimacy.
No surprises that the secure group are sensible enough to be attracted to each other. That leaves the field wide open for the two remaining types to make each other unhappy on a regular basis. According to Dr Tysoe, the anxious group are always drawn to avoidents, almost as part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. "It reinforces their views," she says. "They pick a familiar situation where they're unsure whether someone loves them or not. The secure person would be put off because they always want self- disclosure." The survey also found that nearly half of the interviewees in the anxious group were in relationships with avoident men; in the situation that they most feared. Interestingly, avoidents never attracted other avoidents and ditto the anxious types. But Tysoe says these patterns don't have to be permanent. She explains, "It isn't inevitable. The most likely development is for someone to meet a partner who makes them think, 'I'm worthy of love after all'. Or they can change through self-insight."
Which is what happened to Petra, 26, a production assistant living in Manchester who experienced one failed marriage and four fruitless relationships before her current commitment. "I always maintained I liked someone who could make me laugh, who was the clown and usually the centre of attention. Also I always went for men who reminded me of pop stars or celebrities in some way. It was a total pattern. They'd always end up sleeping with anything they could get their hands on. The last straw was meeting up with a boyfriend who brought another girl on the date. He started kissing her in front of me." As with Kate, her father seemed to be influential in her choice of men. "They were very volatile with violent tendencies and often alcoholic - like my dad."
She managed to break the cycle by spending time on her own for over a year. "It was only when I stopped going out with anybody that my outlook shifted. When I did meet someone who was totally genuine I felt I shouldn't actually go out with them - it didn't feel normal," she says. "It took a long time to get used to being treated well. But I consciously broke the pattern and my self-image has completely changed." Again it's this sense of familiarity that can often lead people into certain repetitive cycles - healthy or otherwise. On a physical level it's often unconscious. Tysoe explains, "There is a theory that we carry in our heads a 'love map'. It's a list of triggers that we look for linked to our first sexual experience. The idea is you can see certain features and it triggers associations with a fulfilling sexual arousal or a loved one in the past."
Establishing such patterns isn't necessarily a negative trait. Unlike Kate or Caroline, 33-year-old author Sophie enjoys the fact that she always meets the same type of person. Even though her relationships haven't succeeded as yet, she's completely unperturbed. "I always end up with the tortured artistic type," she enthuses. "They're unhinged, dramatic and I never really know where I stand. But I'm happy with who I attract." Her last two boyfriends were singers in bands and she's currently dating an actor. So far it's been a passionate, albeit rocky, courtship. "I have to be with someone creative. I also like someone who's free-spirited, reckless and uninhibited. I couldn't bear a steady office boy type."
For those who are more disillusioned after a long line of "free-spirited", "reckless" avoidents, there may still be hope. Tysoe is keen to stress that there is certainly room for change. "Attachment styles may have roots in childhood, but one person in four alters that style in adulthood. Patterns can shift and nothing is set in stone."Reuse content