Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
Because this is such a big issue for most of us, we tend not to think too much about how to do this. It’s so overwhelming. The reality is though, that picking a life partner is totally under your control. And it’s crucial for you to understand that this choice you make is a very big deal indeed!
I’ve adapted the wise and funny blog written by Tim Urban and Andrew Finn to give you lots to think about and many helpful tips.
Think about this. Many of us will probably live until we’re around 80 years old, barring accidents or terminal illness. Given that, in choosing your life partner you’re making a choice about someone who will:-
- tell you about their day about 18,000 times
- eat about 20,000 meals with you
- take at least 100 holidays with you
- co-parent your children (if you want children) thereby deeply impacting their development
- spend most of your spare time with you
- spend your retirement time with you.
Wow! Now can you see why it’s the most important thing in your life to get right? And if that’s so, how come so many good, clever, and mostly clear-thinking people make bad life partner choices and end up leading unsatisfactory and unhappy lives?
How NOT to Pick Your Life Partner
A lot of things work against us:
1. Most of us don’t really know what we want from relationships
This is no surprise. Human beings only get good at something through practice, practice, practice on a regular basis. And most people don’t have many serious, committed relationships before they decide on a life partner. In addition, the way you are as a single person is usually very different from how you are and need to be in a committed relationship. So it’s really hard to know what you desire and need in a healthy relationship if you haven’t had one yet.
2. Our culture gives us wrong and misleading advice
Firstly it encourages us to remain uneducated about the art and science of healthy relationships and tells us to let our romantic feelings guide us. It teaches us to rely on “fate”, luck, following our instincts and then hoping for the best. You wouldn’t run a business like this, would you??? Marriages and businesses fail for the same three reasons: i) failure to learn from the past ii) failure to adapt to changing life circumstances and iii) failure to plan for the future.
Yet if you decide to learn and practice research-based skills to
a) learn about how to pick a life partner and engage in healthy relationship behaviours
b) write out a carefully detailed plan of action with goals
c) monitor your progress on a chart, our culture would say you’re i) too rational and logical ii) too worried iii) obsessively weird.
Second, our culture ridicules being wise and diligent about searching for a life partner. Research on dating choices shows that what drives our choices is usually who is available at the time. Don’t limit yourself! Think of this as a numbers game if you’re serious about making a good choice. Go on lots of dates, use the internet and speed dating systems so you get practice on drawing intelligently from a larger pool of potentials. Get clear on your desires and choose people who share your values, goals, dreams and who are responsible, good people. Get them approved by your friends and family, not just your hormone-driven biology. Don’t listen to society’s old fashioned advice that the “reputable” way to meet a life partner is by sheer luck, accidental meetings or by being introduced through your social or family circles. We’re in the 21st century and there are now new rules.
Third, our cultural bias is to “settle down” with someone before you’re “too old” – whatever that means. You’re never too old to be with your life partner. This process takes time and effort and is worth investing in because you’re in it for the long haul. You’ll be well served to make a smart choice when you’re a little older, instead of a dumb choice when you’re younger that leaves you unhappily partnered and then facing a messy separation later on.
3. Your biology is out to trick you
Our bodies are the end result of millions of years of evolution. They are certainly not programmed to seek out a life partner to stay with for 50 years! Our biology is wired to flood us with hormones designed to get us to feel lust, to fall in love (in the early stages of relationship) and then to commit to staying together by forming an attachment. If we’re not “into” someone, our brains can bypass these drives. But when someone falls into that “middle ground” where it would be much better for us to move on and find a better fit for us, we’re often trapped by the hormonal push/pull so decide to “settle” and stay when we should move on.
The big problem is our biological clocks. Women wanting to birth a child with their life partner need to pick the right partner by the time they’re forty, at the latest. This is a medical reality which adds pressure to an already stressful process. It’s a difficult conundrum which some have addressed by adopting children with the right life partner instead of having biological children with the wrong partner. If you have kids with the wrong partner, you’ll be tied to them for the rest of your life handling parental access rights, birthdays, graduations, rituals and celebrations. We all know how messy that can get!
In summary: we have people who don’t really know what they want in a real relationship, who have had no practice at forming healthy attachments and deepening intimacy on a daily basis, who are facing cultural pressures which tell them they shouldn’t learn about healthy relationships but instead should under-think, under-plan and rush into commitment. This is further complicated by our biology which creates chemical cocktails that switch off our thinking when we’re making the most important decision of our lives, while at the same time setting a time-limit by which we need to decide. This leads us to rush into a resolution for all the wrong reasons and causes lots of people to screw up the most important decision in their life!
Here are some common patterns of those who end up in unhappy relationships
1. The blind and deaf romantics
These people believe that being in love is sufficient reason to make a long-term commitment (hint- it’s not!). Indeed romance is an important part of relationships and real love (real love is a verb e.g. a result of repeated actions you make) and is vital in happy long-term relationships. But love without skills, practice, clear intentions and empathy for yourself as well as your partner is nowhere near enough! Love is blind and deaf because our biology sabotages our thinking. Listen to the small cues that things are not all they seem. And then take informed, skillful and persistent action based on the science of what creates healthy relationships.
2. The fearful person
Fear may be a good initial warning system, but it skews healthy decision-making and is bad in the long-term. Our culture gives us lots of fear-driven messages that we need to learn to ignore. It tells us we should fear being left single (“on the shelf”), fear being an older parent and fear the opinions of others. This drives people to “settle” with inappropriate partners. One fear you should pay attention to is the fear of spending the rest of your life with a person you’re consistently unhappy with and where your friends and family witness its damaging effects on your self-esteem.
3. The person who mistrusts their own senses
These people allow the influence of others to guide their decision in choosing a life partner. Your choice is a complex, highly personal matter which is different for each individual. No-one outside of you can fully understand your personal depths. Unless there’s extreme neglect, mistreatment or abuse in your relationship, other people’s preferences should not come into it. Don’t let family, religion or cultural values which you don’t care about dictate your decision. In addition, even if everyone else tells you that from the outside you look great together, but on the inside it doesn’t feel great, listen to your own wisdom.
4. The list-driven person
These people are more focused on ticking the boxes on their “perfect partner” list than they are in the personality, character and values of the actual person. We all have particular items we want ticked, but if you’re more driven by how someone looks, what they own, what they’ve done or can do for you over and above the quality of your connection, you’re set for failure in the life-partner stakes.
5. The self-centred person
There are three main types in this category.
a) The “My Way or the Highway” type. These are the people who won’t negotiate, compromise or consider others. Their conviction is that their own desires, wants and needs always have priority over their partner’s. Decisions must go their way. Team efforts and true partnership are not on their agenda. What they actually want is to lead their single life with someone there for company who will do what they’re told. The best-case scenario is they end up with an easy-going partner (who eventually revolts), or in the worst case, with a door-mat with damaged self-esteem who martyrs themselves to be in any relationship rather than one of quality.
b) The “Lead Role” type. These people want to be the star of the show. Their self-absorption is so great that they want their life partner to be there for them as therapist plus fan club, with no concept that they must give these back in return. When doing their evening sharing about their day, 90% of the talk is about them. They think: “why should a bit-player in my show get equal airtime?” The main problem here is their total focus on themselves. This makes their life partner a subordinate which leads to an awfully boring relationship.
c) The “My Needs and Desires” type. Of course we all have needs and desires and we appreciate those needs being met. These people have little sense of putting their needs in perspective. They focus on how their partner will meet their needs (she’s a great lover, he’s good at earning money) and this becomes the main reason for choosing a life partner. They have little idea of giving back in a reciprocal fashion. What happens after some time is they get so used to having their needs met that the relationship becomes predictable. If there’s not much else to bolster it apart from the satisfaction of needs, the relationship becomes lifeless.
You can see how the above types end up being unhappy in their relationship. They have no clear idea about what a real and healthy relationship is about, let alone how to maintain happiness in the long-run.
Tips on how to pick your life partner
As any coach will tell you, it’s about breaking a big project into bite-sized chunks and then focusing on getting each chunk right before moving onto the next. Take a long-term view. As the Chinese proverb says “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step”. Each step is ordinary in itself, just as each moment of relating contributes to the whole. To develop a healthy and happy relationship we need to think of it as being constructed of ordinary events which deepen connection, step by step. Fireworks burn out and butterflies don’t last. They are a necessary first stage in the process of developing true partnership, but can’t be sustained for the long haul.
Here are three key ingredients for a happy, long-term partnership
1. A formidable friendship
Think of the friends you most enjoy hanging out with. Most likely they’re the ones you feel enlivened and excited by as well as deeply connected with. When choosing a life partner, make sure you’re great friends and that you enjoy spending time with them. Remember you’re planning to do this for the rest of your life!
Formidable friendships usually have these qualities:
- Compatible sense of humour. Who wants to spend 50 years fake laughing?
- Playing well together. There are going to be many humourless situations in your life like doing housework, childcare, traffic jams, delayed transport, illnesses and money troubles. The ability to laugh at these together lightens the load.
- Respect for each other’s way of thinking and processing events. Because you’ll be communicating your thoughts and feelings about your day’s events, your work, and other interesting tit bits to your life partner on a daily basis, lack of high regard for their opinions will be a major obstacle to long-term happiness.
- Enough shared interests, pleasures and people-preferences. These are what make you up as an individual. Without enough common ground here, you’ll feel less and less like yourself. In addition, you’ll both be hard pushed to enjoy spending time together. Healthy life partnerships improve and deepen with time, like a good wine.
2. A feeling of home
You know what it’s like to sit in an uncomfortable chair for a long time? You don’t want that in a life partnership! If there’s an ongoing discomfort between you, it generally grows over time, especially if it hasn’t been successfully managed. Feeling “at home” means you can be completely yourself, you feel secure enough to be real with each other, without pretenses. A few things are mandatory for this to occur:
- Trust and safety. “Secrets are poison to a relationship, because they form an invisible wall inside the relationship, leaving both people somewhat alone in the world—and besides, who wants to spend 50 years lying or worrying about hiding something?” (Urban & Finn, 2014). The outcome of secrets is suspicion, the very opposite of trust. You cannot feel at home here. That’s why managing a “third force” in the relationship (like addictions, affairs, acting out etc) is essential to trust your partner.
- Mutual attraction/chemistry. When this is present your interactions generally feel easy, free-flowing, “on the same page”. You have compatible energy levels and if not, effectively negotiate differences in body clocks, appetites, desires.
- Ability to embrace human foibles. Guess what? You are not perfect. In fact you have lots of flaws, just like I do and your life partner does. There is no such thing as a perfect human being! If you or your partner see flaws as faults instead of wounds to be healed, you’re in for big trouble. We all have some wounds and these provide ongoing opportunities for growth. Carefully choose the set of flaws you are comfortable enough to live with, because they’re part of the partner you’ll be with for the rest of your life.
- A mostly upbeat vibe. If your partner’s energy or mood is more negative than positive, this is a big warning sign! To realistically assess this, you need to have hung out with them long enough to have passed through the “honeymoon phase” in which you’re still “auditioning” for the part of co-leader. The second phase of a relationship involves getting to know each other’s real selves. John Gottman’s 40 years of research on couples has shown that those with a ratio of less than five positive interactions for every one negative tend to split up.
3. An unshakable resolve to be good at relationship
All relationships are hard! There’s no such thing as a low-maintenance relationship. It’s the hardest thing we get to do in the world. It requires learning relationship skills and putting in sustained, repeated and persistent practice to get on well with another person at close quarters for a long time. What are the skills you need to be good at a long-term partnership?
- Communication. This is a major thing that undoes couples. John Gottman’s scientific studies show that 96% of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first 3 minutes of interaction! Successful couples (he calls them “masters of relationship”) start discussions gently, listen openly and take responsibility for themselves. They avoid the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling) and use their Antidotes instead. You need to practice using these and/or get help via therapy quickly before too much damage is caused. Don’t wait years!
- Focus on equality. Power inequalities are inevitable in all relationships. We need to learn the skills of managing power in healthy ways and how to address power issues competently. It’s about learning the “power for” skills and abolishing “power over” tactics. Power over occurs if one of you is frequently walking on eggshells around the other, or if one’s desires or opinions always win out, or if one treats the other in disrespectful ways. Learn and practice these equality and negotiation skills diligently or you’re headed for separation.
- Fighting fair. It’s a fact that conflict and fighting are inevitable in any relationship. But did you know that you can learn to fight well? A “good” fight is one where you can quickly defuse stress, you can listen before responding, you can see that your partner’s perspective is just as legitimate as yours and you focus on the problem and not the person. By doing this, you’ll fight less anyway. There are the inevitable “perpetual problems” that come up 69% of the time in fights. Couples who fight fair address these issues skilfully so they can move through them without getting gridlocked.
So now you have a good idea of what it takes to make this vitally important decision about a life partner. You’ve no doubt been assessing your own relationship as you’ve been reading this. Remember each person and every relationship has flaws, so there’s no “perfect partner” out there waiting to fulfill you and your every need. It’s a team effort. Yet if the 3 key ingredients above are present in your relationship, or you’re working hard at developing them, you’re well on the way to your happy life partnership. Good relationships are made, not born.
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