The Science Behind Why You Might Be Attracted To Partners Similar To Your Parents

No matter how well you get along with your parents, there's something kind of icky about picturing yourself dating someone like them. Terms like "mommy issues" and "daddy issues" carry negative connotations, and Freud's Oedipus complex — a highly criticized theory that suggests children compete with their same-sex parent to win over their opposite-sex parent — seems far-fetched at best. For many of us, our parental figures and the people we're attracted to are placed in two totally different groups, and walking down the aisle with Dad Redux or Mom 2.0 is the last thing we'd expect.

So what does it mean if you realize your partner is similar to one of your parents after all? Maybe they have a nearly identical sense of humor or they tend to wear their hair the exact same way. Or more importantly, they could have similar problems and character flaws.

Being attracted to someone who reminds you of the people who diapered you as a baby might give you the heebie-jeebies, but it's pretty normal, according to science. Here are the psychological reasons why you fall for people who resemble your parents.

They feel familiar

A childhood snack, your high school-era hangout spot, a perfectly broken-in pair of boots — there are likely a lot of things you've grown to love simply because they're familiar. The same thing can happen in relationships, too, based on the mere exposure effect. This effect suggests that people are more likely to experience attraction toward people who feel familiar — which might explain why you get googly-eyed for that guy who kind of reminds you of your dad.

"When you grow up familiar with a certain type of person, you're attracted to that same type of person because it feels comfortable, whether you like it or not," Elayne Savage, a psychotherapist and relationship expert, explained to CNN. "That's what people mean when they meet a potential partner and say, 'It 'feels like I've known him my whole life.'"

The mere exposure effect can apply to habits and personality traits, though researchers have mostly studied its impact on physical attraction. One 2003 study published in "Evolution and Human Behavior" found that heterosexual men and women are likely to choose a partner who has the same eye and hair color as their opposite-sex parent. Another 2018 study published in "Evolution and Human Behavior" revealed that heterosexual women tend to prefer romantic partners who have a body type similar to their father's.

You adapted to your parents' qualities

As children, most people have no idea what makes a healthy relationship or desirable partner. They learn as they go, mostly picking up indirect cues and tips from their parents or caregivers in a process known as "imprinting." The information absorbed early in life can have a major influence on relationships formed later in adulthood. "As a young mouldable human being, we develop a relational template for what to expect within close relationships," Lauren Bradley, a sex therapist and the Director of Love Therapy Australia, told Fashion Journal. "This template forms from our experiences with those closest to us and we tend to gravitate toward similar experiences in life as we grow."

One example of this relates to attachment styles. How you attach to your partner — whether in a secure, anxious, avoidant, or disorganized style — might be similar to how you bonded with your parents as a child, according to The Attachment Project. For example, if you grew up with parents who were attentive to your needs (secure attachment), you may search for a similar romantic partner now that you're older. Similarly, if a parent reacted coldly and you learned to emotionally close yourself off to avoid rejection (avoidant attachment), a similar dynamic may come naturally in your love life too.

Deep down, you want to fix the past

You might notice that your S.O. resembles one of your parents in all the wrong ways. Perhaps your father struggled with addiction and you can't help but be attracted to people with similar substance use issues. Or maybe your mother was emotionally unavailable and you gravitate toward partners who are similar. If you take a step back, you may realize that while these qualities seem captivating at first, they're unlikely to serve you in your relationships.

So what gives? "There's a psychological phenomenon called recapitulation of family of origin that explains this," Dr. Karin Anderson Abrell, a psychologist and the creator and host of the "Love & Life" podcast, shared with Well+Good. "We look to 'repair' in adulthood what we experienced in our childhood that went awry."

You might subconsciously try to rewrite history, giving it a happier ending with someone new. Unfortunately, choosing a significant other who mimics your parent's troubled ways is unlikely to lead to a better outcome. Even if they don't trigger an instant spark, a partner who offers more security and stability than your parents did will be a better fit for your well-being in the end.