Ask a Therapist: Why Do I Keep Dating People Who Have Major Issues?

Person in chair looking alone and depressed.

Verywell / Catherine Song

In the “Ask a Therapist” series, I’ll be answering your questions about all things mental health and psychology. Whether you are struggling with a mental health condition, coping with anxiety about a life situation, or simply looking for a therapist's insight, submit a question. Look out for my answers to your questions every Friday in the Healthy Mind newsletter.

Our Reader Asks

Every man I date has major problems, like they’re spending way more than they earn or they have a substance abuse issue. I try to fix their lives but I’m the one who ends up getting hurt in the end. What’s wrong with me?

—Megan, 29

Amy’s Answer

You likely see people’s potential. And you naturally want to help them be their best. But, you can’t fix people who don’t want to change their own lives. It’s important to take a look at why you’re attracted to certain people and how to change your behavior so you don’t keep getting hurt.

Why We’re Attracted to Certain People

There’s a reason you’re attracted to people with problems. Your relationships with your parents might be the first place to look for clues.

Perhaps you had a mother who dated men who needed to be fixed. And by watching her, you learned that love means fixing people’s problems for them.

Or maybe your father was a great guy who was battling serious problems. And now, you date men who remind you of your father.

There’s also the possibility that “fixing people” is a great distraction from your own life. The more you focus on helping other people with their problems, the less time you have to invest addressing your own issues.

Spend a little time reflecting on the possible reasons you date people whom you think need your help. Whether it’s to heal an old wound or it’s to avoid a problem in the present, a better understanding of your own behavior will help you move forward.

If you can’t figure it out on your own, talk to a therapist. Talking to someone might help you connect the dots.

Don’t Fall in Love With Someone’s Potential

Someone who has serious problems that they aren’t willing to address won’t make a good partner for you. You become more like a parent who has to prod them along and help them find their way rather than an equal partner.

Of course, you likely see the best in the men you date. And you probably know that they have serious potential if it weren’t for the problems they have.

But, you can’t fall in love with someone’s potential. They might not have any desire to create the changes you want them to make—the changes you know would make their lives better. And consequently, you might be in love with the person they won’t ever actually become.

Work on Yourself

Are you ever not in a relationship? It’s important to have some time where you just focus on yourself. During those times, set goals, engage in hobbies, and spend time with friends and family.

Working on yourself will help you become a better partner when you are in a relationship. And that is key to developing healthier relationships down the road.

Focus on becoming your best self and you’ll take less responsibility for making other people the best version of themselves.

Watch for Red Flags

Everyone has problems in life. And there’s nothing wrong with dating someone who is invested in self-improvement.

But when you encounter someone who acts helpless, don’t do their work for them. You aren’t actually helping someone if you intervene and do things they could do for themselves.

Doing things for people that they could do for themselves is enabling, not helping. Remind yourself that you’re not doing anyone any favors when you’re working harder at solving their problems than they are.

Commit to only helping people who are invested in helping themselves. If you start dating someone and you’re tempted to fix them, consider it a sign that neither of you are ready for a relationship.

By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.