I want to express how someone might have an unfulfilled social need and seek to satisfy it in the wrong place. For example: someone has a romantic social need yet seeks for it to be satisfied from a popular, professional Twitch streamer; or someone has a friendship social need yet seeks to satisfy it with their therapist, which is inappropriate/unprofessional.

Is there a common idiom that describes something like this? Or can you come up with one?

I came up with "looking for an orange in an apple orchard", but I'm not sure if it captures what I want to say.

(also, I read the responses to Phrase or idiom for funnelling efforts in wrong direction, What could be an idiom describing the action of looking for something in the wrong place?, and An idiom meaning someone's doing something useless and has no result at the end, but they don't have the nuance I'm looking for).

Thanks in advance!

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    What’s wrong with the options found in the other questions, specifically “barking up the wrong tree”? – Laurel Mar 29 at 4:26
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    I agree with @Laurel; barking up the wrong tree is the perfect idiomatic expression (in American English, anyway) for what you described. – Tinfoil Hat Mar 29 at 5:28
  • I felt that "barking up the wrong tree" was too harsh? As a user said, "this phrase has the connotation of being a bit more aggressive.... If you are judging the people who are doing the wrong thing, then you can definitely use this phrase." I want a more neutral phrase. Also, although "barking up the wrong tree" can mean "to take the wrong approach" (which works), it also can mean "to pursue the wrong thing", and I'd rather eliminate that potential reading since they're not pursing something wrong (a relationship of some kind), just doing so in the wrong place. – jennivier Mar 29 at 5:44
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    @Jenniver - barking up the wrong tree can very often mean pursuing a right thing but in a wrong place. The dog is barking up tree A but the squirrel cat, etc, is in tree B. – Michael Harvey Mar 29 at 6:46
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    There need be no aggression implied. If I were hoping for romantic love, happiness, etc, from a certain person, and a friend already knew that they were an attractive charismatic sociopath, they might very well say 'you're barking up the wrong tree there, mate'. I should say that as a young man, this actually happened to me. – Michael Harvey Mar 29 at 6:54

The drunkard’s search principle.


An old story—the drunkard is looking for his keys not in the park, where he lost them, but under the lamppost, because that’s where the light is.

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    And annoyingly, you always find something in the last place you look for it ;) – Phil Sweet Mar 29 at 22:21
  • Here we have 13 comments, some long, and some person who finds it relevant to downvote it. How charming, how encoraging. – Xanne Mar 30 at 18:01

If the context is primarily one of affections, then one could say

Looking for love in all the wrong places

This song by Johnny Lee is from the soundtrack of Urban Cowboy (1980).

I spent a lifetime lookin' for you

Single bars and good time lovers were never true

Playing a fools game, hopin' to win

Tellin' those sweet lies and losin' again.


I was lookin' for love in all the wrong places

Lookin' for love in too many places

Searchin' her eyes, lookin' for traces

Of what I'm dreamin' of

Hoping to find a friend and a lover

I'll bless the day I discover,

You - lookin' for love.

(Source: Allthelyrics.com)

This AE speaker has heard the song lyric quoted for social needs other than romantic, but only occasionally. And since the movie is dated and the audience from tilted towards the South, this might need some explaining. But I hope it captures the nuance the OP is seeking.

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