We can learn, heal, and grow while we’re single, and we can also evolve in relationships. Yet, as a rule, we attract and are attracted to people at our own level of emotional development. Dating up — partnering with someone who is healthier and more emotionally mature than ourselves — actually doesn’t serve us. Nor is it likely to happen.
This sounds completely counterintuitive, and you may be thinking…
I’ve dated someone who was way more successful than me — super responsible, organized, productive, mature.
Or, I remember dating a starving artist who had the life skills of a fifteen-year-old pothead.
In either case, it’s entirely possible that your lives looked drastically different externally, but were nonetheless #twinning on the inside.
Some Common Examples
The following are hands-down the most prevalent types of misunderstood relationship dynamics with dating up characteristics. There are many more, to be sure, but these two will illustrate my point perfectly.
Attachment Theory tells us that securely attached individuals value connection and protection equally and are able to negotiate the mutual satisfaction of these needs in relationships.
People with an anxious attachment style grew up with inconsistently met needs and usually some form of abandonment (physical or emotional). They adapted in various, self-abandoning ways in order to satisfy their fundamental human need for connection and sacrificed their protective instincts in the process.
Those with an avoidant attachment style usually had consistently unmet needs in childhood and often experienced some form of unhealthy closeness (enmeshment, abuse, control, etc.). They adapted with self-protective strategies and concluded that connection isn’t always worth the risk.
Thus, anxious folks with their remarkable drive for connection and avoidants with an equally strong penchant for protection individually form the yin and the yang of a whole partnership. Connection and protection are both necessary, so people who only bring one to the table are naturally attracted to those who can do the other. They literally need that.
What often happens, however, is that the anxious partner is portrayed as the loving, generous, emotionally present one and the avoidant as distant, hurtful, and emotionally unavailable. To the untrained eye, there appears to be a huge disparity in emotional maturity or even a gap in material success. It could certainly look like one or even both of them are dating up.
But this is generally not the case.
Both partners are wounded and still clinging to the maladaptive traits of their childhood trauma like the side of a windy cliff.
This is the most incredible dating up illusion in the animal kingdom. Here we see one partner who “has their shit together,” and the other partner who appears to be a piece of shit that the first partner is also trying to get together. That is, one person is a functional member of society and the other is an active alcoholic or addict, abusive, lying, cheating, irresponsible, degenerate of some sort.
The cliché bad boy, good girl falls under this category and definitely looks like a case of dating up. But is it, though?
A healthy human being could not and would not tolerate the unyielding fuckery of a badly broken partner. This is why the quality of person you date is your most accurate gauge of mental health.
Codependency is a multifaceted, shape-shifting trauma response that revolves around trying to get your needs met by “helping” or controlling others. It’s a vast network of coping mechanisms that reflect deep wounding and unresolved relational trauma.
Therefore, although these relationships appear to be comprised of a jolly good helper and a colossal scumbag, the truth is that they are both equally wounded. It’s just that one is bleeding out while the other hemorrhages internally.
Again, neither one of these desperate souls is dating up.
Why People Avoid Dating Up
The dating up fantasy has tremendous appeal. Theoretically, it’s what everyone should want, right? But here are some practical reasons why it’s not as desirable as one might imagine.
•Fear of Feeling “Less Than”
Feeling inferior to your partner is decidedly not a turn-on for most people. Who wants to be like, “You’re such a wonderful person, and I’m just a lucky barnacle, clinging to the bottom of a Caribbean cruise ship”? Over time, that could turn into “Why are you even with someone like me?” It’s not really helpful for either one of you.
People need to feel like they’re contributing members of a relationship, or else they feel worthless. Dating up could mean entering a relationship with someone who doesn’t need anything from you, which is bound to backfire.
•Desire to Feel Equal
Seventh graders usually don’t hang out with high school seniors — they hang with other seventh graders. Humans naturally form cliques and make their deepest connections in peer groups. It just feels safer that way. We tend to date people who are at a similar place in their evolution as we are.
•Companionship on the Journey
Would you rather ride bikes with someone at your skill level, or ride with someone way faster than you? Riding with someone is way more enjoyable than trying to keep up the whole time. In relationships, going through similar challenges and growing together is a bonding experience that meets a lot of emotional needs.
•Wanting to Speak the Same Language
Someone who has never dealt with depression, addiction, abuse, or whatever you’ve struggled with is not likely to understand your challenges. They may not know how to support you or how to even talk about it. Being with someone who doesn’t get you on a fundamental level feels lonely as shit. People avoid that.
•Toxicity is Familiar
For some people, toxic motherfuckers just feel like home. That’s right. A deadbeat asshole is like grandma’s fresh-baked apple pie. Abusive, but strangely comforting when it’s all you know.
•Triggers Feel Like Chemistry
Someone with an insecure attachment style recently asked me, “How do I know if I’m dating a secure person?” In so many words, I basically said, “You’ll know they’re secure if you’re wildly not attracted to them.”
We’re instinctively drawn to those who will help us unpack our emotional baggage. And by “help,” I mean trigger the shit out of us so we have no choice but to heal or self-destruct. I truly believe this phenomenon is part of the symbiotic nature of the universe.
What Inevitably Happens in Relationships
It’s safe to say that most people have something they still need to work on. Sure, there are probably a couple of 107-year-old Buddhist monks who got their shit dialed in pretty good, but the rest of humanity is deeply flawed. That’s exactly what makes us human and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
When two imperfect souls shack up, there are only three possible outcomes:
•Neither One of You Grows
You ride the honeymoon phase of a relationship until the wheels fall off and then start blaming each other for your glaring relational ineptitude. Conflict ensues. Control, compliance, criticism, contempt. Resentment, avoidance, jealousy, bitterness. Maybe lying, cheating, spite, and vengeance.
Somewhere between hell and relational purgatory, you either decide to leave and go do the same shit with someone cuter, or you conclude that this is probably the best you can do, and you’d better just stay put.
•Only One of You Grows
When one partner heals and matures while the other can’t or won’t, the unsustainability of the relationship takes center stage. There is a heightened risk of codependency flare-up at this point if the healthier person thinks, I need you to change too, so I can be ok. Such thinking can easily undermine whatever progress was made.
This type of situation typically sucks for everyone involved and it’s just a matter of time before you reinfect each other or one of you leaves.
•You Both Grow Together
Obviously, this is the holy grail. Mutual growth is a wonderful thing. But it still doesn’t ensure that your relationship will work out. Yes, it’s possible that you grow closer and closer together in ever-deepening love and adoration. But many couples were only able to tolerate each other at one point because of their dysfunction, so growth can mean waking up to some glaring incompatibilities as well.
Notice that in each of the three cases above, staying together or breaking up are equally plausible. However, only the latter case has a nonzero probability of genuine happiness. This is why I always tell clients to only date people who are willing to work on themselves. Anyone who thinks they’re as good as they’ll ever be is a fucking sociopath.
If I Can’t Date Up, How Do I Level Up?
Hopefully I’ve made the point clear that, if you’re relationships suck, you definitely have some healing work to do. Does that mean insecure attachment, trauma, shame, low self-esteem, addiction, codependency, perfectionism? Something else, perhaps?
Step one is figuring out what ails you, and this can be astonishingly difficult to do by yourself. I highly recommend consulting a competent therapist or relationship coach who can shine some light on your blind spots. My free relationship quiz may be a good place to start.
Step two is dealing with that thing head-on, bringing to task as much outside help as you can. And the reason I suggest getting help is because trying to heal relational trauma in isolation is literally impossible (think about it). See The 4 Pillars of Healing and Growth for guidance on this.
Leveling up is something you can do any time you want. It often feels easier when you’re single, free from the roles, routines, and expectations of a partner, but it’s possible to do in a relationship as well. In either case, the healing journey must eventually continue with a significant other, for they are the mirror in which you will see your progress.
So next time you hear someone use the term “my better half” to describe their partner, know that they just mean they’re better looking or better at parallel parking or something. Because they’re definitely emotional equals.
No one dates up.