A Few Thoughts on Negative Dating Patterns, Toxic Behaviour And Self-Reflection

Negative Dating Patterns

Last month I read Lori Gottlieb’s incredible, thought-provoking memoir Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. And I don’t think a single book has impacted me quite so deeply for many years (probably not since Brené Brown’s Rising Strong).

Lori Gottlieb is both a writer and a practising therapist, and in Maybe You Should Talk to Someone she takes the reader behind the scenes of her therapy practise. But Lori doesn’t just write about her patients – she also documents the year that she spent in therapy, after an unexpected breakup.

I ended up highlighting so many passages throughout this book, and it prompted deep thought on a wide variety of topics – family, love, death, grief, the stories we tell ourselves etc, etc. Honestly, I can’t recommend it enough. Please read it.

One of the many, many lines I highlighted was the following sentence: “We marry our unfinished business.”

Have you ever dated your “unfinished business”?

I’m not married. But this sentiment stood out to me, because I’ve certainly dated my unfinished business before. (How else can you explain the fact that I have had semi-relationships with two near-identical men from Houston Texas? That’s way too random to be pure coincidence. I’ve never even been to Texas!)

In a later chapter, Lori Gottlieb goes on to discuss one of her patients, who continually falls for difficult, unavailable men – despite saying she wants to break that toxic pattern. Gottlieb notes that these poor choices aren’t about her patient subconsciously wanting to get hurt again, but instead it is a desire to “master a situation in which they felt helpless…”

She goes on to write:

“Freud called this “repetition compulsion.” Maybe this time, the unconscious imagines, I can go back and heal that wound from long ago by engaging with somebody familiar – but new. The only problem is, by choosing familiar partners, people guarantee the opposite result: they reopen the wounds and feel even more inadequate and unlovable.”

repetition compulsion

As I read this I wondered whether I’ve created my own repetition compulsion. Aside from Texas A and Texas B, the men that I’ve dated in the past haven’t been shockingly similar. Yet I have been on the receiving end of similar behaviours, ghosting and gaslighting being the most frequent.

And it was alarming to consider the possibility that this might be something my subconscious was seeking out, in an attempt to correct past experiences and rewrite the narrative. (My love of narrative is a HUGE problem when it comes to dating, but I’ll save that topic for another time.)

I sat with this thought for a number of weeks, and gave it a lot of consideration. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that ghosting is far too widespread of a behaviour – carried out by all kinds of personality types, even those who seem genuinely nice and thoughtful – for my subconscious to not only seek it out, but to also foresee it. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that’s part of the problem.

However, I do think repetition compulsion might be playing out in another way.

Because, here’s the twisted thing… Whenever I’m dating someone open and accessible, who makes things easy and doesn’t leave me with a giant question mark looming above my head, I feel a bit detached from the whole experience. Like I’m not fully in it.

Maybe this time, the unconscious imagines, I can go back and heal that wound from long ago by engaging with somebody familiar – but new.”

In these instances, I barely think about the accessible guy I’m dating. I don’t have to, because they’re reliable, and therefore warrant no analysis. But, because they’re not constantly on my mind, I start to question whether something is wrong with me. Why am I not more excited about them? I’ll ask. I seem so indifferent; maybe I don’t really like them that much after all? (Logically I realise the whole point is you’re not supposed to be thinking about the person you’re dating all of the time. So this is actually a good position to be in).

But, on the flipside, whenever I’m dating someone who blows hot and cold (or someone who starts off as the accessible nice guy, but then becomes distant) I suddenly get very invested. I can’t stop thinking about them. I analyse every text message. And I’m desperate to make things work (even if I don’t actually like them that much). The experience of dating someone like this makes me miserable, but at least the pattern feels familiar. I know what’s coming – eventually they will disappear from my life – it’s just a case of how we’ll get to that end point.

So, perhaps my inner control freak is subconsciously driving me towards the patterns I recognise?

Or maybe the majority of straight, single men are just ill-mannered jerks, and I’m trying too hard to find reason and logic where there is none?

The gender imbalance

The amount of self-reflection that myself and my single girlfriends do is immense. We are constantly trying to learn from failed relationships and our dating experiences. But are men putting in half as much effort to better themselves and learn from their mistakes? I’m not so sure…

A few weeks ago I was grabbing drinks with my friend Michelle Elman, and somehow we landed upon the topic of dating coaches. We noted that there’s a huge gender imbalance, because the vast majority of coaches/experts/gurus are geared towards heterosexual women.

And that’s simply because women are actually willing to invest time and money into the search for a healthy, loving relationship. Yet the issues that frequently drive women towards dating coaches stem directly from men’s behaviour.

You could watch 400 hours worth of Matthew Hussey videos online (although I personally wouldn’t recommend it), do tons of self-reflection, and it still won’t shield you from shitty behaviour. Dating is always going to be difficult if women are the only ones doing the deep, soul-searching work.

I’m personally coming to the conclusion that there are no more questions I need to ask of myself. There’s no more analysis to do. I’m aware of my flaws and bad dating habits, and I’m constantly striving to do better. So the next time I’m ghosted or gaslit, I’m not going to question whether I’ve subconsciously played a role in that outcome. Because that’s not my shit. And I’m done taking ownership for it.

Do you agree that there’s a deep gender imbalance when it comes to dating?  Do you have your own negative dating patterns? And what do you think about the concept of repetition compulsion and “marrying our unfinished business”? Comment below to have your say…

Artwork by Jennifer Darr

P.S. How to take a nourishing dating detox


  1. Alice says:

    This is so great!! I definitely used to have a pattern- older, north american men, who were work colleagues, and who were either married or going through divorces. There were THREE OF THEM. THREE!!!! And obviously, all three were massively dramatic relationships that played out in almost the exact same way. Oy vey.

    Currently though, I’m with an amazing man who is the complete antithesis to the unpleasant men I’ve dated before. At first, I was constantly like “when’s the other shoe going to drop?”- to the point that about a month in I actually asked him “so, are you or have you been married?”, much to his surprise. When I explained, he was super understanding (and thought it was funny) and very reassuring. He absolutely seems to have done the work in the same way that I have, and I definitely don’t feel like I’m the one analysing everything or making excuses for his behaviour or anything like that. It feels pretty damn good to have broken the cycle with this one- fingers crossed it lasts!!

    • Ella Gregory says:

      Hi Alice,

      Ahhh that’s so interesting that you had a type that kept coming up as well. And that you saw those relationships playing out in the same or very similar ways. I honestly find this stuff fascinating. I think we all have so many patterns that we may not realise within the moment.

      And I’m so happy you’ve found a lovely man! He sounds like a keeper!

  2. Martha-Sophia says:

    This is so intetresting as you kind of mentioned one reoccuring thing that I was beginning to see myself thinking repeatedly.
    “Whenever I’m dating someone open and accessible, who makes things easy and doesn’t leave me with a giant question mark looming above my head, I feel a bit detached from the whole experience. Like I’m not fully in it.“
    As the only one last unmarried or single woman in my circle of friends and family, it sometimes feels like nobody can relate to the questions that are very prominent for me.
    Also couldn’t agree more to the argument of gender imbalance, if it comes to investing emotionally and mentally in relationships of every kind, particularlly romantic ones.
    Think we still have a lot of work to do on that front in order to raise both genders in an equally compassionate way.
    Generally if it comes to dating I find myself often thinking that it would be great to have the self-confidence that a mediocre man on any given dayhas, just for a day…. and that I rather prefer to stay on my own and surround myself with friends and family than a relationship where only one person is prepared to put in “the work”!

    Thanks for being that open and honest about complex topics. One of the best posts ever! XX Martha-Sophia


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.