“Doc, what should I look for in a partner?”
I get this question a lot in my practice, and it breaks my heart in small ways and large ways each and every time. On the whole, the idea of what people find desirable in partners, and how they view particular aspects and qualities of the other person as criteria to date or not date, baffles me.
There’s the big philosophical and psychological question of why we pick the romantic partners that we pick. There’s also this operational question, which is the one that baffles and fascinates me most. Operationally, how we pick our partners, and on what criteria we pick them, offers lots of avenues of exploration. Especially, or maybe I’ll say remarkably, I encounter people that choose partners based on supposedly relational criteria that I don’t see as relational at all. For some linky examples of what I don’t see as relational choosing criteria, there are people choosing relationships based on: being a geek, cycling, being a doctor, girls who travel, tall guys, curvy girls, and even that classic trope of bad boys. These are lovely lists, which most read as more of a justification for dating, or worthiness to date, but I’ve personally and professionally heard of types as being relational necessities, which I struggle to see.
To move away from types and onto characteristics, I still hear a lot of ideas of what to look for in a relationship that have nothing to do with relationships: “Ambitious.” Ambition says something about a person’s ability to work toward their personal goals but nothing about a relational capacity. “Stable.” Stability is lovely in theory, as some signifier of personal growth, but we are all a gentle nudge over a precipice of perceived permanence, and we can so easily lose our jobs, health, family members, financial plans, or any others placeholders for stability. This characteristic also says little about relational ability. “Hot.” Hotness and perceived sexual attractiveness is super temperamental, because you can like someone, and in doing so find them hot, but once you stop liking, that heat, that attractiveness, that chemistry, can easily dissipate. There are tons more examples of qualities (e.g. confidence) or characteristics (e.g. doesnt live at home with the parents) that people may use to deem the suitability of a partner which have little relational bearing, but I won’t go more into those.
This article is about picking partners, and to that end, here’s what I would call relational criteria, or some unordered guideposts for this exploration on picking partners:
Effort. Returning phone calls, going on dates with you, a generally even text-messaging ratio, remembering your friends’ names, remembering your work schedule, remembering prior conversations, holding the door, and asking, “how was your day?” are all what I would generally consider nice, but not really effort. It is easy to interpret any action done on the part of a potential partner as having effort, and in many ways it is a demonstration of your kindness to assume that positive intent, but it doesn’t mean that effort is there. In my book, effort is the intentional act of reaching out, going beyond one’s self, of seeing things from the other person’s perspective, and preferring to make decisions with you rather than for you. As an example of effort, if you planned a date on a specific night and they can’t do that particular night/place, they give a counter offer of another day/time/location, rather than disagreeing altogether. Simply agreeing to a plan isn’t effort either; working towards something that works for all parties, is. True, it may seem petty to think of measuring effort and monitoring who is doing the planning and work, but ideally both you and they are demonstrating effort. In my book, consistent displays of effort build a feeling of trust, which is key to knowing that your partner is there for you.
To consider effort: with distinction, how am I demonstrating my ongoing desire to relate and how are they demonstrating their ongoing desire to relate?
In many ways, this is our kindness, assuming positive intent in others’ actions, and their actions may in no way be coming from a place of kindness.Kind. This is a tough one. If we think someone is a a good partner to be, then we may take any action or behavior that they do as a form of kindness. In many ways, this is our kindness, assuming positive intent in others’ actions, and their actions may in no way be coming from a place of kindness. Being bought gifts may be kind, but it may also be about their personal wants of showing off their partner in hot new clothes or their own personal thoughts on what is expected, but not requested. Being taken to dinner may be kind, but it may be about the other person’s control issues and not wanting to seem dependent. Having the door opened to you may be kind, but it may be more about a presumed formality of what should happen than what you want to happen. In my scorecard, that you are treated as you want to be treated, granted you also treat yourself kindly, is where kindness is felt.
To distinguish kindness, and to see it, I like to ask: how am I being treated as a person, especially with regards to what I don’t like about myself?
Generous. I’m not talking money and gifts here. Those are nice, cute even, but can be more about the person giving than the one receiving. Generosity, to me, is with time and priorities. If a relationship is to occur, it is with respect to everyone’s time restraints, and consideration and weight is given to all priorities of all parties involved. If only one person’s time, energy, or priorities are valued then there is an inherent imbalance of power that can make relating difficult. Within this, it is difficult for all parties to relate to each other when there is an imbalance to this degree that. And yes, it may seem like a given thing, or an assumed part of relationships for compromise to occur, but a person that sees the value in what you value, and generously prioritizes it because it benefits you, regardless of any secondary gain on their part, is a relational skill to prioritize.
To decipher generosity: are time and energy being given, by my partner to be, to my priorities outside the relationship? And I to theirs?
Loving. I’m not talking about niceness. Nor am I talking about generally vague good feelings. Being loved, and what feels like love for you, because it feels like it to you, is the relational component. Now, you may really like a partner that is super invested in your life and gets really close to your friends and family, but they seem to shower you with gifts, some expensive, some less than shiny; that’s all very nice. Not quite felt as love. I’d say, in not so many words, that it isn’t quite love when their showing of love is more about what matters to them than what matters to you. If you want physical touch to feel connected to your partner, and they show that they care by holding your hand, but only in private, and only at your initiation, then I wouldn’t call that enough. In many ways, whether with therapy, counseling, or a lot of introspection, knowing what feels connecting for you, and how you want to be cared for is essential in being able to have a relationship. It also gives you the nuanced perspective to consider how your partner wants to be loved.
As a great guiding question: how am I being loved by this person, and is it how I want to be loved?
I’d say, in not so many words, that it isn’t quite love when their showing of love is more about what matters to them than what matters to you.Apologetic. Now, a person who is always apologizing, always putting themselves down to elevate you, who is constantly self critical isn’t the most relational. They may have a horrible relationship with themselves, which is a whole other thing, and that isn’t the kind of relational sense that I’m encouraging being sought after. Having a relationship does mean, in large part, impacting those close to you in pleasant and unpleasant ways, and being impacted and growing as a person because of this other person. Expecting a relationship to be always smooth, kind, generous, loving, and not conflictual, not tense, nor disagreeable at times is to be unrealistic. Accordingly, seeing any sign of hurt, disloyalty, or discomfort in a relationship as a sign of weakness and not worthy of working on, both personally and relationally, is also a sign of lacking relational ability and not working on a relationship. Apologizing, repairing, taking responsibility, having a partner that sees the impact of their actions on you, changing themselves and their behavior, and asking for forgiveness when having done wrong and putting the relationship in your gentle hands is a demonstration of many relational abilities. A fantastic demonstration. A demonstration of being in a relationship.
To discern an ability to apologize, consider: have they apologized for some wrong, an important one, and changed to correct it?
Small caveat: it is easy to believe that in romantic relationships we are treated differently by our partners than how they treat others in their life. I largely disagree. I rarely believe that in romantic relationships both partners are the exception to how they treat and relate to others. I believe in romantic relationships, we simply get more of the same. To simply assess a partner as pickable or not based on how they treat you, and not take into account how they treat others, is to miss a whole host of information. Picking someone who is kind to others, is giving to others, tailors their connection to others based on them, and has the dedication to apologize and mend relationships that aren’t with you, is also picking someone that demonstrates a relational capacity to be with others, and maintain relationships with others. It can be difficult to assess how a partner to be treats others, but it is also an important relational priority to have: prioritizing their priorities. See above on effort and generosity.
Big caveat for those who have already picked a partner and maybe this writing has induced some anxiety on your own part that your partner might not seem pickable: all of the above can be worked on. Working on the above, is relating. It is effort. Throwing in the towel because a person isn’t fully relational, fully able to participate in a relationship from the first date, the infinitesimal moment of a first greeting, of any meeting, is to not work on relating. That’s a whole lot of a lot of sabotaging mechanisms designed to only allow a perfect partner the possibility of a relationship. This mechanism of only accepting perfection and not perfecting your relational abilities, perfects, ironically, the inability to be in a relationship.
Even in all the work that goes into finding a person to have a relationship, to discerning their readiness to have a relationship, to working on yourself to be able to be ready to be in a relationship, the relationship can still fail. Refining your ability to pick only goes so far in a relationship working or not, but it does refine your awareness of relational qualities, which is largely helpful in being in a relationship.
So pick a partner. Pick a partner based on their ability to be a partner. Be their partner. Be kind. Be generous. Be loving, as they want to be loved. And when you do wrong by them, do better.