Truthfully we never have any guarantees about whether we made the right choice, but we can definitely increase our chances and confidence that we did.
Finding a partner has become easier thanks to technology, but finding compatible partners for long-term relationships seems to have become much more complicated. Some dating sites have their compatibility assessments and algorithms, some of us still meet people through friends and work, and most of us have some kind of a preliminary “mental checklist” we tick off and friends and family (and therapists?) to be our sounding boards about whether we have found a good match.
As a marriage and family therapist, I believe the dating-for- partnership process needs to be as intentional as it is experiential.
Simply put, much like a job search process, we would benefit from having a good understanding of ourselves and what we are looking for, actively pursue our search in the direction of what we want, see what opportunities we get to explore, and ask enough questions in the interview process (which goes both ways!) to see if we have found a strong partnership for a long term commitment. Be aware that you might encounter some people who are relationship- hoppers, and like with job-hoppers, these people may want to cultivate their identity through the experiential part of relationships and there is no guarantee that the person they become will be compatible with the person you are looking to stay with long-term.
The intentional parts of this process (job hunting, dating) are what each partner brings of their own individual self, their desires and expectations, and their dreams of their future life, into the relationship. The experiential parts are the here-and-now moments of interpersonal connection in various contexts with the other. Both parts are needed to cultivate a deep enough understanding of each other, and which parts of the self and other identities and interpersonal experiences are going to be constant and permanent and which parts are incidental and impermanent.
There are many wonderful resources about what to look for in a partner and how to create a meaningful and fulfilling relationship, from renowned experts that include Drs. John and Julie Gottman, Esther Perel, Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen Hunt, and many more that are readily accessible in print and digital formats. In addition to these resources, I would also encourage you to expand your personal checklist to include these important areas:
- Assess each other’s ability to manage stress and use effective self-regulation skills.
People who have poor self-care skills are more likely to have anger management issues, alcohol and substance abuse issues, and other mental health issues that will adversely affect the contextual experiences and trajectory of the relationship. People who have poor self-care skills are also more likely to depend on their partners to manage their internal state and external context experiences, which compounds the amount of responsibility for one partner and decreases the reciprocity in a relationship. Save yourself a lot of headache and heartache and find someone with healthier self-care and self-regulation practices. If you are the one who needs help with these skills, then please connect with a therapist right away.
- Learn how each of you makes decisions apart and together.
Understanding and respecting each other’s independent decision making style goes a long way in building and maintaining trust and security in the relationship. Learning how you make decisions together can also teach you both a lot about how to refine your language with each other and be more flexible, which can open up even more possibilities for relationship gains to consider. If you have a partner who is minimizing your decision making style or does not allow you to have input in things that affect you both, then consider this a major red flag and look for other signs of manipulative or possessive behaviors, as these could be precursors to abusive behaviors.
- Have shared values that you both want to live by.
Be very specific about your values, and how you want to see your values manifested in your life and relationship. Generic values, like “kindness” and “consideration” do not enough provide information for a partner to know that you also want to see these values in effect when you are feeling at your worst and crankiest, or when you are visiting each other’s families and not-so nice family members, and perhaps that forgetting birthdays and anniversaries, and expecting dinner on the table after a 10hr workday are not acceptable. Keep in mind that one person’s understanding of the terms may not be same as the other person’s, so yes, specifics of your values and how you want to see them in action are very important.
- Learn how you fight.
In my training I have learned to reframe and help people make meaning of their fights in a couple and family relationship. In my professional experience I have learned that it is also important to teach people how to watch for and learn the step-by-step pattern of how they and their partner fight, from startup to finish, in order to improve their own self-regulation patterns and also identify change points to deescalate the conflict and re-route to more collaborative interaction styles.
- Learn how you repair your relationship after a fight.
Much like learning how to fight, people need to pay attention to how each of them behave in trying to make up and repair the relationship, and how long it takes for each person to be ready to repair the relationship. Relationship repair efforts can be verbal communication or non-verbal behavior efforts, and they only work when each person recognizes and understands the significance of that effort, and when the effort is tailored to what the responding person likes and appreciates. People need to also watch for avoidance of repairing of a relationship after a conflict, or lack of reciprocity in effort to repair and move on from the conflict, as this could also be a red flag for creating or manipulating a power dynamic that could lead to abusive patterns.
- Understand and respect the role of important people in your partner’s life. Friends, family, ex-partners, and ex-spouses, children from prior relationships, etc.
It can be very tempting to minimize the other people in your partner’s life in order to concentrate all your focus on your partner, and expect them to concentrate all their focus on you. As you begin to accommodate and assimilate each other into a shared life, the reality of who else your partner values, spends time with, and wants to balance their life for begins to become more prominent and real. This emerging information also shifts the shared life vision to accommodate more people, more roles, and more demands, and reduces the percentage that you thought would be allocated to you and your relationship. Valuing other people should not reduce your value to your partner, much like you would not want your partner to feel insecure because you have other people in your life who are important to you as well. Figuring out how to share time can be tough, but it can be done.
Being attentive and observing your partner’s relationships can teach you things about your partner that are important to know, particularly if you are assessing your partner for a long-term partnership, such as identifying family and relationship patterns that may be repeating in your relationship, any unrequited love relationships that are still lingering in the picture, unfulfilled family dreams or dreams for being a family, and elements that can contribute to secrecy, illicit alliances against the relationship, and qualities and conditions that can contribute to unfaithfulness. As the old saying goes, “forewarned is forearmed”- and you both can use your understanding of each other’s important relationships to enhance your own, and respect the people who made it possible for you to learn more about your partner through the experiential contexts they had, and may still have, with each other.
- Discuss career plans, money management, and financial planning.
A career determines much more than your salary. It also determines your work hours, time off, where you live, and the level of stress you have at work and come home with. Earning income and money management go hand in hand, and knowing how well you and your partner manages money will also help you understand each other’s spending habits, personal philosophies about money and quality of life, and whether you can both stay within your selected budget. Make sure to discuss any debts you and your partner may have, as finding out later can create distrust in the relationship. It is also important to know how to read a bank statement and balance your check book, and if you don’t do these well then make sure you learn. If credit cards are your enemy, then create a plan to pay the debts, then close all but one and shred the unnecessary cards. Partners also need to discuss their expectations regarding money too, since more and more households are choosing to have separate accounts and there may an expectation by at least one partner that the other will help financially support them and, perhaps, members of their family of origin. When it comes to having a long-term relationship vision the lifestyle you want to have in your future will depend a lot on how you manage money now.
- Even if you decide what your roles are (who does what), be prepared to switch roles to give each other a rest or just to vary the routine once in a while.
Routine can keep things predictable and secure, but it can also get boring and contribute to partners taking each other for granted and forgetting that the partner has more capabilities that the routines allow them to show. Sometimes one partner may be temporarily unable or unavailable to manage their part, and sometimes it may take too long to wait for them to recover and resume. Both partners need to know how to adequately manage the responsibilities in the relationship, and both partners can also benefit from switching roles in the love and sex aspects of their relationship too.
- Discuss whether you want to have kids, why it’s important to you, how you will allocate enough time to spend with them, and what values you want to teach your children.
Once kids enter the picture, priorities will shift, availabilities for the relationship will shift, and expectations will shift, and the roles of self, other, and the respective families will shift. It’s very important to take the time to explore the issue of children, the meaning of deciding to bring children into your relationship, what your individual and collective contributions to your kids will be, and the role you both want other people to play in your growing family. Take the time to reflect on your own upbringing and learn how your partner was brought up, the strengths and limitations that were experienced, and what aspects of upbringing practices you and your partner want to keep and discard or learn more about. Talk now about what your parenting perspective and styles are to see how knowledgeable and how invested you and your partner are about childrearing, since once they come into the world your kids will expect you both to be active parents in their lives.
- Balance couplehood fun and responsibilities as close to equal amounts as much as you can.
Ideally I think all of us would rather have more fun than responsibility, but the demands of life don’t typically allow equal time for fun let alone more time for fun. The key, I think, is to re-immerse ourselves in the art of play, and expand our imagination to develop adult play. We may not be able to go to dinner and dancing every night but we can make time to sneak off into a room to play a round of questions in a jar, bookmark a special page in a novel to read some sexy prose to each other, or in your copy of the Kama Sutra with a date, place and time for your partner to come home and find, and even play a scavenger hunt for things connected to sexy times or fond romantic memories , or make it a cozy movie night. Keep your play activities simple, accessible, and adaptable and you can do them anytime and anywhere, which make even the smallest moments among the most memorable. And isn’t this why you both wanted to couple up and move in together in the first place anyway?
As I mentioned earlier, I believe the dating-for- partnership process needs to be as intentional as it is experiential. The more you know yourself the more you can explore your partner and your connection to each other. Understanding where your flexibilities are and are not can help you both adapt just enough to benefit from each other’s individual strengths and revise areas of vulnerability together to create and sustain the shared vision of a life you both want.
Maria Constantinou is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Queens, New York. For more blog articles, and information about Lifespan Wellness Marriage & Family Therapy PLLC’s practices, visit https://lifespanwellnessmft.com/ and follow updates on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Questions or comments about blog articles can be directed to Maria Constantinou, LMFT at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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