Tired of Tinder? How to Choose the Right Partner
Up until very recently, choosing a partner was a one-off event. Our grandparents would date a little in their teens, then partner up after finishing their studies or starting their career. And that, barring death or (uncommon) divorce, was that.
It may have been romantic, but a single lifetime partner choice was sometimes uninformed, unwise, or the start of a lifetime’s misery. But the serial partner choices we have now also bring disadvantages; what I see in my teaching and coaching is that one main pitfall is a sense of failure.
After first love, we may move on - even if we ourselves choose to make the move - with a painful regret around our previous choices, and a growing anxiety about our future ones. So how can we avoid making the same mistakes again?
Look to the past
First, we need to look to the past. Our previous partner choices will certainly have been based on the mental presuppositions that we’ve gained over the years, from the very beginning. Did childhood instability make us opt for uber-chaotic and unhappy - or uber-stable and boring - partnerships? Has our passion for the cultural ideal of romance made us vulnerable to the kind of excitement only provided by ‘players’? Family, friends, the media will all have given us deep - but not necessarily correct or wise - beliefs about what a relationship should be. Now could be the time to examine those beliefs carefully and lay some aside.
Even if we want a relationship, often we aren’t ready. It’s hugely tempting to assuage the fresh agony of a recent relationship ending - and the lingering pain of all the previous endings - by partnering again. But recent studies suggest that breakups can, physically and emotionally, create the same kind of ‘cold turkey’ reaction that come with drug withdrawal. In other words, you are unlikely to be capable of making good choices about your next love until you’re well clear, and have deeply learned the lessons, of your previous one.
“In love” is wonderful, and I thoroughly recommend it. But that kind of overwhelming feeling of chemistry is, physiologically as well as emotionally, an altered state. And it’s likely that some of the mistakes you regret from previous relationships were down to the influence of what Plato calls ‘divine madness’. So while falling deeply in love is one of the loveliest beginnings, you’re best to wait until passion levels out before you commit. Some estimates say that levelling happens after six months, others after two years; whichever, the underlying message is to look before you leap.
Focus on relationship
Here’s one mistake almost everyone makes: seeking a person not a partnership. Because what matters is less who you pair with as the relationship that results from that pairing. So if you define your partner ‘target’ by specifications such as height, weight, interests or income, your search patterns will be misguided. You may well find a match, but ultimately it may not be the match that delivers the happiness you want. This time round, instead do what I call the ‘normal, happy day reflection’ thinking through what for you might be the minute-to-minute experience of a contented relationship. Then find a partner who gives you that experience, and - whatever they look like and whatever their hobbies - they’ll prove a good choice.
That said, there are three factors on which you should stand firm - that a partner has similar values, similar life goals and a complementary personality. If you deeply believe that family comes before work, unreservedly want children and are a raging extravert, then however strong the physical and emotional attraction, choosing a deeply introvert workaholic who doesn’t want to start a family will not be a match made in heaven. Unfortunately, these deeper elements of a person may only come to the surface after a while, when we are already fond; so it’s worthwhile having some bottomline serious conversations early on. Then, if there’s no compatibility, have the strength to walk away.
Nowadays, we tend to want - and to expect - it all. But human relationships are not perfect, human beings are fallible, and one estimate - by renowned psychologist John Gottman - is that if we get 60% of our needs met by our partner, we are doing well. Yes, of course don’t endure bad behaviour. But if a partner gives you most of what you need, if you give them most of what they need, and if you are both motivated on a daily basis to raise that percentage, then accept that it is absolutely ‘good enough’.
Look for emotional responsiveness
If asked to pick a single element that makes for good relationships, I would recommend this. Is a partner willing and able to support you when you have emotional need? Are you willing and able to return the favour? If not, it’s unwise to stay. Ironically, though, we repeatedly do. For a lack of this kind of responsiveness is often what keeps us stuck in a toxic relationship, hoping against hope for a happy ending. If you have ever hung in where your emotional needs were largely not met - or where you felt largely unable to meet your partner’s needs - let this be the moment when you swear never to make that mistake again.
Follow the Ninety Day Rule
A final action point. When starting a relationship that seems hopeful, don’t wobble. Instead give it time - specifically, ninety days. For it’s over that time period that the patterns of your interaction will have started to establish themselves, and you can see - in headline - what is happening between you. Can you can be good for each other? If after ninety days the answer to that question is ‘no’ then the relationship is unlikely to ever come good. If after ninety days things are increasingly positive then carry on - not necessarily forever but to see whether you continue to thrive.
Susan Quilliam's How to Choose a Partner