But having narrowly escaped death-by-suffocation at the hands of my first husband, I like to think I’m something of an expert on the subject.
That’s why I was over the moon to find this amazing article on how and why so many of us are picking the wrong mates.
The article, however, is simply an introduction to the problem, rather than a comprehensive solution. So I’ve been pondering the question: What would a “psychological marriage,” as recommended by the article, look like? How can we accurately screen for, and actively create, that kind of partnership?
In short: how do we start picking the right partners instead?
Lucky for you, I’ve gone through a truly epic amount of trial-and-error on the subject, and I have some suggestions.
1. Learn yourself as a lover.
The conventional wisdom, when seeking a long-term romantic partner, is to think about the kind of person you hope to find. Their qualities, their values, etc. And though that can indeed be a useful exercise, it has its limitations and indeed its dangers.
First of all, it sets up a fabricated framework into which you will then attempt to shove actual human beings, none of whom are going to be an exact fit.
Second, it robs you of any control over compatibility with potential partners, since the burden and power of possessing the requisite qualities rests entirely on The Other.
Third, it presumes that you can know exactly what you want before you’ve ever met or experienced it.
Therefore, instead of pondering what/who you are looking for, I recommend you find out exactly what you have to offer, and the conditions under which you thrive or wither as a lover and long-term partner.
Here are a list of questions that I’ve found especially useful in pursuit of this kind of self-knowledge:
- What is important to you?
- What do you value most about yourself?
- What quality of yours do you think is most useful to other people?
- What do you most enjoy creating, and how?
- How do you express love?
- What communicates to you as love?
- What kind of partner do you wish to be?
- What tends to bring that out in you?
- What tends to hinder it?
Focusing on the kind of partner you are and wish to be puts the focus back on the only thing you can control in a partnership: yourself.
2. Seek to know The Other
You would think this would be a no-brainer. But I’m afraid it is, in reality, exceedingly rare.
When we meet another person, our first instinct is to seek agreement. We try to draw parallels to ourselves, to discover the ways in which The Other is like us and can relate to and understand us, rather than in trying to actually get a comprehensive understanding of who this person is, what they want, how they function, etc.
When we meet a potential partner in particular, we tend to look for the ways in which they fit with our image of The Ideal Partner, and to gloss over everything else. Or conversely, to look for all the ways in which they don’t fit our criteria so that we can dismiss them and move on to the next candidate.
But by treating a date like a job interview, we are missing out on the opportunity to genuinely connect as people, which, incidentally, is the only way to create genuine intimacy. Oops.
Next time you go on a date, take a genuine interest in this person as a person, not just as a potential partner. Ask them the same sorts of questions you just asked yourself, and really listen to the answers. If you, like me, find that to be a struggle, try pretending you are a writer, and they’re a celebrity you’re interviewing for a biography.
Just because someone is not a good match for you as a long-term mate doesn’t mean you can’t still connect with and appreciate them for who they are. Some of my closest friends are people I dated once upon a time (or in the case of my second husband, married) but realized we were better cast in non-romantic roles in each others’ lives.
3. Evaluate The Couple you create
Chemistry is complicated. You can put together two ingredients which are quite innocuous on their own and create something dangerously volatile, or surprisingly delicious. So it is with human beings, only we are far less able to predict the results ahead of time.
There are, however, early-return results we can observe in order to help predict future results.
After a few dates, step back and, as objectively as possible, observe the effect this person has on you. Since this person has been in your life:
- Has your overall sense of well being improved or declined?
- Have others made any observations about changes in you (either positive or negative)?
- Are you proud of your behavior? Are you acting like the sort of person you want to be?
- Are you inspired to create? To grow? To take positive action?
Meanwhile, do your best to observe the effect you have on them. This is trickier, since you generally have no baseline against which to make an assessment. But do take note as to whether their overall well-being, self-regard, and behavior seem to be improving or declining as a result of your association.
Take note also of which of your qualities they seem most enamored of. Are these the same qualities you value most in yourself? Because, make no mistake, those are the qualities they are going to want you to focus on. For example, if the thing you value most in yourself is your artistic talent, but the person you’re dating is constantly going on about how hot your bod is and doesn’t seem particularly interested in your art, don’t be surprised when they encourage you to spend more time at the gym and less time sketching.
Take note, also, of which of their qualities you most admire, and whether or not they seem invested in putting focus and energy toward it long-term.
Finally, take note of how many misunderstandings/miscommunications the two of you have, how many of those turn into arguments, and whether or not those numbers appear to be on the decline. If you cannot learn to effectively communicate to each other, and/or cannot maintain your affinity for each other while communicating, you’re in for a lot of fighting.
Ask yourself, in short: what sort of people do we make of one another? What kind of couple do we create? And is that the kind of couple you think the world needs more, or less of?
Most importantly: listen to that little voice in the back of your head. If you have this funny feeling that something isn’t quite right, it probably isn’t. If you have this inexplicable sense that this person is trustworthy, even though you have no solid evidence to back that up, they probably are. When you first meet someone, your mind is taking in far more information than you can rationally process. You are picking up subtle signals that may not be explained for a long time to come, but that doesn’t mean they should be dismissed. On the contrary, it is those quietest, most gut-level feelings to which you should pay the closest attention.
Sadly, there are no guarantees when it comes to relationships. People are complicated. They change over time. Even the most promising partnerships can implode without warning. So forgive yourself. Learn. Move on. And remember: not every relationship that ends is a “failed” relationship. It’s just a new kind of relationship, and an opportunity to create another intimate partnership from scratch.