How do you choose a partner?
March 7, 2010 2:12 PM   Subscribe

I don't understand how to choose a partner.

I know versions of this question have been asked here a lot, but they seem to usually focus on one specific scenerio. I'm confused about this issue overall - not specific to one person.

I've had several serious, several-year-long relationships in my life. Each time there were some clear pluses and minuses about the relationship from the get-go, but each time I really thought that person was The One. Obviously, none of those people were The One, and all the relationships ended for one reason or another.

I'm dating again and I'm really trying to do it differently this time around. Yes I am in therapy. Yes I ask my friends for feedback on my dates. And yes, I'm lucky enough to have people interested in me often enough that I feel I can be a bit cautious in this decision instead of throwing myself at whoever is there.

But how the heck does anyone ever decide to choose someone?

I know that attraction is not enough, liking someone is not enough, respecting someone is not enough. What is enough? How did you decide to stay with your person?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Someone once told me that every relationship fails until one doesn't. I don't think there's any one thing that keep two people together, it just kind of happens. When you can't imagine waking up and not having that person next to you for the rest of your life... well, I guess it's kind of like that.

(Note: I'm single. Take my advice with a grain of salt.)
posted by youcancallmeal at 2:16 PM on March 7, 2010

A teacher in middle school always said three things were important in a partner: similar intelligence, similar morals, and similar goals for the relationship.

At the time, I didn't think much of it. I also loved the Backstreet Boys. Years later, I think it's some of the best advice I've ever received.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 2:27 PM on March 7, 2010 [47 favorites]

Agree with youcancallmeal -- it's not a "choice" or a "decision." It's something that happens, that feels right, that you don't question in the first place. I don't know if I could ever pin down what makes a "great" couple, but it probably has something to do with common interests, personalities that don't clash, and common values.

I've been married almost 6 years now. There was never a specific moment when I said about my spouse, "Hey, I've examined the pros and cons of what we have going on here, and I've made the final decision to stick it out." We have our similarities -- we make each other laugh, we both love kids, we have the same taste in music, we both want a family, etc. On the other hand, we're different in a lot of ways -- I'm an extrovert, she's an introvert (IMO, this is a necessity in most relationships); I'm liberal/moderate, she's conservative; she's very religious, I'm not.

I guess my point is that each couple will have different reasons for working, so it's not very easy or accurate to try and quantify the reason for staying in a relationship.
posted by puritycontrol at 2:28 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

determining if a relationship is the "one" is NOT like examining a plate of beans, but, instead, very much like opening all of your senses to the experience and just letting it "be"... you'll know.
posted by HuronBob at 2:33 PM on March 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Though I'm single myself (and you should also take this somewhat salty), I'll quote Garrison Keillor on this one, which BusyBusyBusy's advice reminded me of:

It's hard to know what one needs. We're survivors, we make do, if necessary we learn to live with a hole in our head, meanwhile we carry on baroque fantasy lives in which we're showered with pleasure and admiration, which we can get along very well without, thank you. A good relationship comes down to conversation and sex and good manners, I suppose. And if you can continue your conversation and your bawdiness and your good manners for more than 10 years, then you're doing awfully well. Conversation is the truest barometer in a relationship and when you're not moved to open your heart to your lover, something's wrong that needs fixing. We all know that. And yet it's a fabulous gift, true conversation. The world is so full of cant and rote and reflexive chatter, that good talk is pure gold, and it's what lovers need from each other.
posted by inkytea at 2:37 PM on March 7, 2010 [77 favorites]

each time I really thought that person was The One. Obviously, none of those people were The One...

Which is why the "The One" concept is patently silly. No one you will meet is "the" One, but many of them may be "a" One -- someone you are capable of being in a partnership with. Congrats -- your potential pool of Ones just multiplied many times over!

Partnerships are forged one day, week, month, and year at a time. Someone you like now might not be someone you like in three years. Also, someone you are merely contented with may become someone whom you thank god for every day. No one knows!

So yeah, it's great to set yourself up well and court the attention of people who have all those similarities youcancallmeal pointed out. That will probably narrow it down quite a bit, just enough to feel like you had some control in the process.
posted by hermitosis at 2:37 PM on March 7, 2010 [12 favorites]

There is no such thing as The One. Just because it ended up not working out doesn't mean you made a bad choice.

Let your gut pick and let your brain veto.
posted by callmejay at 2:41 PM on March 7, 2010 [9 favorites]

You grow together or you grow apart. Someone said this to me recently and I find wisdom in it.
posted by SPrintF at 2:48 PM on March 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Similar sense of humour. It's so, so difficult spending time with people who don't get your jokes, or don't like jokes, or like to joke way too much for you. You should be able to converse and have fun just by being together. Picture being locked in a room with the person for 48 hours... does that sound like hell? Probably not the one. Start there.
posted by gonna get a dog at 2:53 PM on March 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

I agree that there's no such thing as the one. There are any number of people you might be compatible with over the longterm; when a relationship ends, it indicates that one or both of you felt that that particular pairing wasn't compatible.

I recently got engaged. This relationship has felt different from all others right from the start. For me, I felt very early on that it was a Big Deal. The other day I asked him when he decided or realized that this relationship was heading towards marriage and he said that it was apparent early on to him that if things kept going the way they were, that's exactly where we were heading. We just clicked, and it was very smooth sailing. Someone said to me, oh, congratulations that you're getting married, relationships are hard work but so worth it, and it occurred to me that this particular relationship has never felt like work. Sure, it's not like I ignore it or don't put effort into connecting and communicating, but it's NOT work. It's pleasurable, like a hobby that requires a lot of effort but which you love.

Interestingly you don't say what caused your relationships to end but you ask How did you decide to stay with your person? Did your previous relationships end because of boredom? Because my answer to your question would be "Just try and make me leave this relationship."
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 3:10 PM on March 7, 2010 [9 favorites]

I think you may be overthinking the whole process. You date a person you find attractive and engaging. You continue dating to see if you're really compatible. You continue to become progressively more committed, and at each stage you are introduced to more aspects of one another. If you can't handle any of these aspects, you dump them. Or they dump you. Then you start the whole process over again with a little more knowledge of what to look for.

I guess "the one" is the person with whom nothing has gone wrong. There's really no trick to it.
posted by Willie0248 at 3:11 PM on March 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Only since WWII (the last 65 years or so) has it become a societal norm in American society for each person to try to pick their partner, independently, and that has generally coincided with a rise in divorce rates. Prior to that, a person's birth family, their friends, their religious community, and their greater social community all had roles in helping to choose suitable mates, and to keeping marriages "together," even if that meant a lot of people stayed in marriages long beyond the point where romantic love was long extinguished. But others, we know from personal stories and memoirs, found that they grew into arranged marriages, some after many decades of living as a married couple. In those times, marriage was really a lifetime obligation for most people.

No one who values today's greater personal freedom is likely to willingly surrender that right to choose for themselves, finally, their romantic partner(s), and I am not arguing for the "good old days." But perhaps, there is a middle ground, where you solicit the opinions of those who knew you growing up, and who now know you best, about your potential mate(s), and investigate, for yourself, his/her family, friends and larger social network, giving the opinions of others, and what you learn about how your potential partner treats others in his life, more weight in your choice than you have, in the past.

It's good that "I ask my friends for feedback on my dates." but it would be better if you extended this beyond just your friends, to include, perhaps, your parents, your potential partner's parents, his/her friends, and perhaps some work contacts, ex-partners, etc. The more opinions you get, from those who know you and your potential mate, the more informed your choice. And the wider a range of life experience behind those opinions, the better off, still, you are likely to be.

The wisdom of the crowds is never perfect, but it has a long history in helping select long term partners for those interested in permanent relationships, and had I, as a young person, given my family of origin, or other significant others in my life more of a say about my potential partners, early on, I might well have avoided many of the mistakes I ultimately made in romantic relationships.
posted by paulsc at 3:14 PM on March 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

When I was starting a new relationship nearly ten years ago, I got a lot of good advice from The Mastery of Love. Paraphrasing and summarizing some of that guide that is appropriate for your question:

How do you know if your partner is right for you? Let's imagine for the sake of discussion that you are a man, and a woman is going to choose you. If there are a hundred women looking for a man, and each will look at you as a possibility, for how many of these women will you be the right man? The answer is you don't know. That is why you need to explore and take the risk. But the right woman for you is the woman you love just the way she is, the woman you don't have the need to change at all. You are lucky if you find the right woman for you and at the same time you are the right man for her.

You are going to be the right man for her if she loves you just the way you are and she doesn't want to change you. She doesn't have to be responsible for you. She can trust that you are going to be what you claim you are, how you project yourself. She can be as honest as possible and project to you what she is. She will not come to you pretending to be something that you later discover she is not. The one who loves you, loves you just the way you are. Because if someone wants to change you, it means you are not what that person wants in the first place.

Be honest with yourself and with everyone else. Project what you feel you really are, and don't pretend to be what you are not. Be yourself, then explore the possibilities with a person who seeming matches with you. Take the risk, but be honest. If it works, keep going. If it doesn't work, then do yourself and your partner a favor and walk away. Don't be selfish.

Relationship is an art. The dream that two create is so much more difficult to master than one. To keep the two of you happy, you have to keep your half right. You are responsible for your half, and it's the same for your partner's half. Communication through respect and love is the whole key to keeping the love alive and never getting bored with your relationship.
posted by netbros at 3:16 PM on March 7, 2010 [8 favorites]

For me, I had to choose myself before I chose a partner. I was a much better partner once I'd taken care of myself first.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 3:34 PM on March 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

Choosing someone is a step into the dark, because you don't know yourself. Most people think the reason for this is that other people's beliefs, opinions and expectations are contagious and they blur or confuse your otherwise naturally clear and obvious wants and desires. Once you get rid of that, everything will become clear, but this is just a myth. In reality, self-knowledge is always incomplete - there is something you don't know, an irrational surplus that intrudes and disrupts your orderly, sensible plans.

Everyone knows this, which is why so many different ways of escaping from it have been invented. Some people have astrological compatibility charts that can tell them whether they should really be with someone. Some believe in fate or destiny, so that when they meet the person they are meant to be with, there will be an unmistakable sign that says "This is the guy/girl!" Arranged marriages, where the parents make the decision, and of course, rational checklists, questionnaires and other formulas are also examples.

What all these have in common is the belief that someone/something else knows and can tell me what I want. The weird part is no-one really takes it that seriously - at best, you run the formula, and then decide if you are happy with the answer or not. If you aren't, usually you run a different formula until you get the answer you are looking for, and then tell yourself that you have discovered a very wise and useful guide.

It's like carrying around a magic eight-ball to make all your decisions, but then you don't like what it tells you to do, so you shake it again until it produces the right answer. Why even bother with the magic eight-ball? Because we don't really want to fully assume responsibility for our decisions, it makes us feel better to believe that there is something else, other than ourselves, guaranteeing their validity.
posted by AlsoMike at 3:37 PM on March 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

There is absolutely no such thing as "The One" - this person does not exist. Losing one's faith in this destructive myth is a required step along the road to finding satisfaction with the people that you love. Seriously. You're gonna find the Minotaur astride a centaur before you locate "THE ONE."

Everyone's answer to this is gonna be a little different. Beyond the general questions of trust and attraction and respect, the thing that's seemed the most important to me is how well a couple's sense of humor matches up. Until I started seeing a woman who was always game to laugh at some really dark shit with me, I didn't realize how much I had been holding back with the gals I'd been seeing in the past.

You gotta be with someone who is into your authentic self, you know? Someone who is into you, not who you could or should be. I've had to play a character for so, so many partners and there's only so long you can keep that up. Nothing'll come natural if you're always trying to fit some mould. So now I know that there's only so far a relationship can go if I've gotta self-censor all the time around her.

That's my take on it, any way. Be less perfect, have more fun.
posted by EatTheWeak at 4:17 PM on March 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

Erich Fromm's "The Art of Loving" is a useful read on this topic.

I picked in a dumb way. I knew the day after our first date that I'd marry him. I made him wait two years before we got married because only crazy people decide to get married after their first date. :P I don't know of a better way, though.

Datapoint: My husband and I do not at all have the same sense of humor. At ALL. I always thought compatible senses of humor was the most important thing in a mate. Turns out I was wrong. (But then, I picked in a dumb way. :D )
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:29 PM on March 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

This is a great question. For me, it has been a four step process:

Step One was learning to trust my Chooser -- to know myself, to know what I wanted, to trust my instincts, and to trust my ability to protect myself and work for my own happiness.

Step Two was finding someone with whom things didn't fall apart quickly (this had also happened several times before I'd finished Step One, and I made those relationships end out of feeling like I didn't know if I wanted them).

Step Three was learning how to work with another person in general and my partner in particular to positively address differences in a way that brought us closer together rather than driving us apart. For me, and actually for 5 of 6 of my recently-married friends, completing this step took going to couples counseling, since we all have barriers we don't know about.

Step Four is to use that approach to work on those few differences that may yet prove to be dealbreakers. For me, this is in process now, and I am very curious to see how it goes!

I do feel like I could have chosen a partner before this point, and there were times when something psychological and spiritual strongly clicked, and that would have been a different way to choose a partner. But I'm glad I waited, because I think I would have ended up here anyway (knowing myself and trying to figure out how to get what I wanted in the relationship), and if I'd picked someone sooner, who knows if I'd be getting divorced now. And those earlier situations felt highly charged and magical, but nerve-wracking and out-of-control, whereas now I feel a much deeper sense of comfort and ability to control the situation. It's the difference between catching a ride on a shooting star and learning to pilot an airplane. So for me, it's the first time I feel like I could make a long term (lifelong?) commitment with any confidence, though many people do commit earlier and then together learn to make it work.
posted by salvia at 4:32 PM on March 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

They say that the rational mind is what we use to explain the choices we make. The reasons come after the choice, not before. Trying to define the mate you choose has so many intangibles. You have to be chemically compatible, then there's values, lifestyle, aesthetics. It's a lot. So, really, you don't really choose a mate as get chosen by the circumstance. The best you can do is put yourself in front of a lot of people so you can have a wide selection to choose from. And don't get majorly committed until the handwriting is on the wall. How did I choose my mate? I didn't. I put myself in front of a lot of people until there she was. I more or less cooperated with the inevitable. Still not a perfect world but what is?
posted by diode at 9:19 PM on March 7, 2010

The first thing you need to learn is that there is no One. In fact, you already are your One. That's right. Learning to love yourself (in a healthy way) is the best way to be someone else's someone special. It's corny but it's true: to find someone you love, you've got to be someone you love (thank you "Concrete Bed" by Nada Surf).

The entire concept of "The One" is ridiculous. There are what, 6.8 billion people on Earth today? The idea of "One" person being just right for you is ludicrous. Who would even play a lottery with odds in the billions? That's crazy.

There are many many many manymanymany people who could make for a wonderful partner. Don't bother looking for The One. Look for someone you like, who also sees someone they like when they look at you. Date that person. If dating leads to love, then Yay! Be happy! If it doesn't, then boo. Try again.

Sadly, dating really is as simple as that. There is no secret formula. You just have to get out there and meet people to find someone you click with. And when you've found someone like that, you have to be ready to compromise - but that's not a bad thing at all. Dating is a 50/50 deal. It's give and take.

Here's what I do:

I look for someone I can talk with and laugh with.
That leads to a first date.
I look for shared values and lifestyles: religion? Kids? City versus country?
That leads to a second and third date.
Finally, I look for that inexplicable feeling of "I want to spend more time with you. I want to tell you my stories and I want to hear about your day. I want to hold your hand and walk in the rain..." That sort of thing.
posted by 2oh1 at 11:34 PM on March 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is personal to me. I have no idea how much it extends to people in general:

I knew I'd found The One when I realized that, as attracted as I was to her physically, if she became a brain in a vat or whatever, I'd still want to be with her; when I realized that if she got a terrible, fatal disease, I'd want to stand by her. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind.

But I "date" differently than most of the people I know. I've only had about three major relationships in my life, and they were all with best friends. I have never "gone on a date" to test out romantic waters. I have become friends with people, and, after a generally-long, platonic period, I have become romantically involved with a small number of those people.

My wife and I were best friends for a year before we so much as kissed. Now, we've been married for 15 years.

I understand what people mean when they say "there's no such thing as The One," and I think that's generally good advice. But I define "The One" as the person I'd die for; the person who, when something good or bad happens to me, I have to tell; the person with whom I share a lot of history and in jokes (I can't imagine dating someone seriously before already being at that stage.); etc.

I can't imagine thinking, "How do I choose...?" I don't choose. I have feelings or I don't. If, God forbid, my relationship with my wife ends, and I don't get those feelings about anyone else, I'll stay single. If I'm thinking about choosing, I know I'm not ready.
posted by grumblebee at 7:56 AM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

If someone brought up kids on the first date that would terrify me. But then, I don't want them :)
posted by mippy at 8:00 AM on March 8, 2010

For me, it was a decision made over time. I knew I liked Mr. WanKenobi a great deal. Early on, he described it as having the same "sonar"--we were very similar in the way we interacted with the world and saw things, and because of those similarities we had a very easy time talking to one another and relating to one another. However, I don't think either of us were ever under the delusion that we were the only people out there with these similarities. We took things one day at a time, and sometimes for good reason--I was very young when we started dating, and we fought a lot. But we'd both figured, simultaneously but not necessarily together, along the way that if things were more good than bad it was worth it to stick together.

And the funny thing is, it was through that sticking together that he became the one. It's our shared history that makes it difficult to imagine ever losing him. We've seen both the worst and the best of each other; he understands me better than anyone else can, because he's been there through so much with me. Our relationship is a friendship at its most basic. The logical part of myself realizes that, if I ever lost him, I could find a new best friend (I mean, hasn't that happened throughout my life already?). But given the option, I just wouldn't want to.

What it boils down to is that time has taken us from a pair of limerent kids to a pair of people who are maturely pair bonded. Sometimes I think "it would sure be nice to have another first kiss." But it wouldn't be nice enough to risk losing the very mellow, comfortable, and sustaining bond that we have. Which is infinitely nicer for me than being single (not single-ist).

So it wasn't one little thing that constituted enough. It was many things. It was time. It was hard work. It was good luck. It was all of those things in aggregate. I couldn't pinpoint the time when Mr. WanKenobi became my soulmate, but it was very much a process of becoming. Sorry if that's not an easy answer, but I just honestly don't think there is one.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:50 AM on March 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

Near miss relationships teach you what you really want.

I ditched out on a lot of guys who were "catches" - smart, attractive, successful, funny. Each guy helped me refine what I was looking for a bit more. When I met Mr. 26.2, he had all that stuff. Plus he was also one of the most kind people I've ever known. That's what made him the one for me - he takes time to be kind.

How do you decide? Eventually, you figure out what you want. You also figure out what you're willing to do to be in that relationship.
posted by 26.2 at 1:41 PM on March 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

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