Think You’re Attracted to Someone Who Reminds You of a Parent? There’s a Reason.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

There are people who look like their dogs—whether it’s a poodle-chic perm, bulging puggy eyes, or a bony greyhound-like snout—and then there are people who look like their partners. Just think of all the times you’ve played a game of Siblings-or-Dating, attempting to decipher if the blondes two tables over are on a date or if they share roughly 50 percent of their DNA. And while there are many factors that contribute to who we’re attracted to, resemblance between partners may be partially attributable to the theory that we’re actually attracted to people who remind us (boner-killer ahead!!)…of our parents. Womp womp.

Okay, don’t freak out. I’m not saying you’re attracted to your parents. I’m only saying you may, consciously or not, base some of what you’re looking for in a partner off of what you saw as a baby or child, modeled by your parents or guardians.

After all, it was your earliest caretakers who fed you and bathed you and kept you safe from the monsters under your bed. And it was them, Seattle-based relationship, intimacy, and sex therapist Claudia Johnson says, who shaped your first impressions of the world you now inhabit, for better or worse. “The nuclear family [is] your first point of contact when you're developing and you're recognizing what is healthy, what's unhealthy, what feels good, what doesn't feel good, what is safe versus what isn't,” Johnson says.

In the world of science, this process is often called imprinting. That’s right: Imprinting isn’t just for werewolves and vampires á la one of the creepier plot points from The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I. It’s actually a biological experience for human babies, first observed in baby birds across numerous studies throughout the 20th century. While it had been studied as early as 1873, sexual imprinting in birds was brought to the attention of the masses in 1935 by Dr. Konrad Lorenz, and then again in 1965 by biologist Patrick Bateson. In early studies, an egg would be moved into the nest of another species for hatching and rearing (sad). Researchers observed that once hatched, baby chicks would imprint on the first creature they saw, regardless of that creature’s species or genus. As adults, those birds that imprinted as babies tried to mate with animals of its adoptive species, demonstrating “sexual imprinting.”

Since these early experiments, scientists have hypothesized that humans also experience our own form of sexual imprinting—though it’s of course not as obvious, since we don’t exactly hatch and we can’t quite be transferred from nest to nest. Still, the images and people we interact with during our first years of life appear to have a lifelong impact on the partners we choose. Beyond that, studies like this one published in the journal Cogent Psychology in 2017 show that some people actually know they’re attracted to people who remind them of their parents. And they’re pretty chill about it.

For the study, individuals’ awareness of their own sexual imprinting was measured across a total of 4,170 adults in West Virginia. Researchers used an anonymous digital questionnaire and found some striking patterns among the participants. In particular, 19.2 percent of women and 16 percent of men appeared to be aware of their attraction to people with physical characteristics that were similar to members of their nuclear families. Women reported the most sexual imprinting on fathers (15.5 percent), followed by brothers, mothers, and sisters, while men reported the most sexual imprinting on mothers (11.5 percent), followed by sisters, fathers, and brothers.

Most of the participants who could recognize this phenomenon in their own lives reported searching for a person who physically resembled their opposite-sex parent, according to the study. Next most common was that they were searching for a person who physically resembled an opposite-sex sibling. Study participants with “same-sex orientations” tended to report looking for a person who physically resembled their same-sex parent or same-sex sibling.

Part of this attraction may have something to do with our implicit egotism, or the idea that most people are attracted to their own face, Johnson says. Therefore, by extension, they may also be attracted to faces that resemble their own parents.

It’s not just physical.

Of course, there are significant numbers of people who have partnered up with folks who look nothing like them or their parents. Just look at the 17 percent of U.S. weddings in 2015 that were interracial, or at couples with differing physical abilities. But sexual imprinting accounts for much more than what’s skin-deep.

West Virginia’s 2017 study cites findings from several other contemporary studies that measured the extent of sexual imprinting beyond facial characteristics like hair and eye color. These other studies found imprinting had influenced things like tolerance of smoking in a partner, plus preferred height, hairiness, and age difference between partners. In 2011, researchers in Japan found a strong correlation between the height of people’s partners and the height of their opposite-sex parent.

This preference for the familiar began as a survival mechanism, Christene Lozano, certified sex therapist and founder of Meraki Counseling, says. “When you're born into the world, you don't have an identity, you're essentially this little blob,” Lozano says “You have a functioning body, but you have to learn all these things.”

Whether it’s your parents, your aunts or uncles, grandparents, siblings, or other caretakers who taught you how to interact with the world, “whoever you're surrounding yourself around when you're growing up, those are going to be a lot of the models of what you feel drawn to in your life,” Lozano says. Your attraction is informed by more than just your sexual desire. You seek traits in a partner that reflect your own values, which are strongly influenced by family and caretakers.

For example, Lozano says that for a child who spent a lot of their time observing a hard-working parent or guardian—whether it was at work, taking care of the family, or just for something they were really passionate about—it’s totally possible (and even likely) that as an adult, they would seek a hard-working partner, or value hard work in their relationships. Especially if that was a quality they admired in their caretaker.

“Someone can be in their dating world and be very intentional about looking for that trait because it's something that was modeled to them,” Lozano says.

As the West Virginia study shows, sexual imprinting influences more than physical preferences, and “appears to explain how we, as unique individuals, came to prefer certain anatomical, psychological, and behavioral attributes when we were searching for our life partners.”

How is this different from having “mommy” or “daddy issues”?

Our biases for partners who remind us of our parents—and the anxieties that surround those biases—show up regularly in popular language and culture. Sigmund Freud’s “Oedipus complex,” which refers to a child, usually a boy, who supposedly desires a sexual relationship with his mom, is the butt of countless jokes and a common trope in film and TV. Similarly, we coined the term “daddy issues” to soften the pain of acknowledging our difficult relationships with our dads and the ways in which those difficult relationships shape our adult lives.

Mommy and daddy issues refer to the feedback loop of attempting to soothe parental wounds with sex or romance. But, Johnson notes, this looks different for everyone. For some, it’s about seeking things in a partner that our parents never gave us. For others it’s about seeking things that we love about our parents but can’t get from them anymore, or about acting out the relationships our parents modeled for us. And for some, it’s just a preference for something familiar, whether it’s healthy or not.

No parent is perfect and no parent-child relationship is without stress, conflict, or even trauma, whether big or small. The imprints that we form and bring with us into adulthood reflect a mix of positive and negative traits that we absorb from our caregivers along the way.

An absent parent could have just as much impact on your attraction.

While sexual imprinting originates from very early interactions with parental figures, it’s not contingent upon spending continual, significant time with those parental figures. Lozano says that you don’t need to even see a parent or guardian on a very regular basis for them to have an impact on your partner preferences as an adolescent or adult. In fact, the absence of a parent or guardian can have a “huge, if not more profound” impact on a person as they navigate relationships and dating. From the attachments you form to the characteristics and personality traits you tend to avoid (or those that you can’t help but seek out), and the kinds of affection you seek to fill that void, parents or guardians have influence over us whether they’re around or not.

For some children who feel unconnected to their nuclear family, Lozano says, other adult figures that they admire can take on an almost parental status. For example, that child might feel more connected to a great teacher than they do their own mother, she says. When that child grows up, it’s possible that they’ll look for characteristics in a partner that are similar to the teacher.

But even if that is the case, Lozano says, the exposure they have to their parents—whether the parents are somewhat around, or whether they’ve disappeared and left behind a fractured attachment—is still going to have an impact on the child.

Parents and caretakers influence our attachments, too.

Not only can our parents influence our attractions, but they also influence our attachment styles, Lozano says. If a child’s parents modeled a “secure attachment” to one another and to the child, meaning the relationships were stable, consistent, loving, and reliable, then that child is more likely to have secure attachments in their own adult relationships—not just romantic or sexual, but platonic relationships, too.

It's what they see in the parent or the guardian, Lozano says, that most often determines what a child will learn about the safety and value of attachments.

When a child’s formative experiences are shaped by parents or guardians who are loving, caring, and attentive—not only to their children but to each other—those positive lessons are carried forward into adulthood, where they can play a role in determining what kind of partners that person will seek when the time comes.

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