Center for Shared Insight, PC

Dating Down: Understanding Why You Choose Who You Choose

August 15, 2017
Posted By: Kristen Hick, Psy.D.
Women at dusk texting

“Dating down” is relatively new relationship terminology but the concept has been around for ages. Even just a century ago, individuals might have been pressured to marry into certain families with certain social status, or been influenced by dowries. Dating outside your social status could be viewed as the modern day equivalent of these dynamics.

While it’s important to look beyond salary and status when choosing a mate, dating someone with a wildly different lifestyle, values or goals can prove challenging overtime. As an extreme example, if you have a professional 9-5 job with a healthy salary and your partner is a host at a restaurant, lives with his or her parents, and is still working on getting a degree, the differences in your lifestyles, schedules, and even salaries may make it difficult for the relationship to sustain. Some might call this “dating down” and here are five reasons why you may be doing it.

Fear of Abandonment

Perhaps your self-esteem has been negatively impacted by past relationship dynamics, including partners leaving with little warning or other pain and heartache. Or you experienced the absence or loss of a parent during childhood. This can lead a person to to fear abandonment and rejection in future partnerships. When you date someone who may have less to offer on paper, due to his or her job, social status, or family background (among other factors) you may have a false sense of security believing that this person won’t leave because he or she won’t find a better partner (from the standpoint of financial/professional success, looks, status, etc.). This fear of abandonment can drive the desire to “date down” in an effort to find a more “secure” relationship.

It’s Easy

When you date someone who may have fewer expectations for the relationship, the relationship is less likely to challenge you, help you grow, or get you outside your comfort zone. In these relationships, you don’t have to work hard to perfect your communication skills because your partner may not be attuned to these dynamics. Perhaps you even make courtship easy for him or her like giving in to Netflix or movie nights on the couch early in dating  versus expecting a date out together, to keep things easy and inexpensive. If you don’t feel you have a lot of time to date, or are tired of feeling like relationships are too much work, this could be very appealing and a reason to choose a partner who may be low-maintenance.

You Play the Rescuer

Depending on your earliest relationship dynamics, you may grow up with an attachment style that includes a desire to fix, save, rescue, or heal people. Sometimes this is played out in who you choose to date. For instance, if you have a strong desire to date someone because you think you can help him or her overcome an addiction, past trauma, or fill another hole in his or her life, you might be playing the role of the rescuer. These deeply rooted patterns are often related to unresolved childhood conflict, with the attraction and care taking in the rescuer role being a way to symbolically work through unresolved conflict and drama.

It a Boost to Your Self-Esteem

When you date down, your relationships are often all about you, your needs, and a huge boost to your self-esteem as the relationship revolves more around you. Because you likely have more going on professionally and more social status, having a partner who prioritizes your life and calendar can be a huge boost to your ego. There is rarely a time when you have to share the spotlight.


Codependency is common in a relationship dynamic in which the relationship is fueled by problems (e.g., addictions, ongoing illnesses, instability in major areas of life, etc.). Both parties generally identify problems, feed those problems, and benefit from those problems continuing. Aligned with other reasons cited here, including playing the rescuer, those who are codependent subconsciously look for individuals with such problems in order to ensure a codependent bond - “I need you to need me”. This often results in “dating down” to attract partners with enough problems to keep a codependent relationship alive.

In summary, dating down is a phenomenon I see regularly as an individual relationship therapist. While it’s great to consider dating people outside your norm and not rule out anyone based on social status, professional success, or looks, ask yourself to get honest about your true motivators for dating down. Instead, consider the power of dating outside your comfort zone and continue to look for a partner who challenges you to be the best version of yourself.

If you recognize dating patterns like the ones discussed here and believe you could benefit from working with a relationship therapist, reach out to the team at Center for Shared Insight to learn more about how we help clients overcome dating challenges and relationships patterns like these. Or, download our fearless living and loving ebook to learn tactics for living outside your comfort zone.

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