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Choosing the Right Relationship

Most people put more thought into choosing a car than choosing a romantic partner.

When I ask the couples I see in therapy what drew them to each other, out of the hundreds that I have seen, the most common answers are physical attraction and some indication of ease. Things like “We talked for hours,” or “I felt comfortable with him,” or “she was nice.” While these things are pleasant, and may give some indication of initial fit, it is clear that very few of these partners have given much consideration to potential strengths and weaknesses in a mate, much less what their own are, and how those two go together.

Many make a “lifetime commitment,” and then seal it with the permanence of having children, with very little reflection until they come into therapy on the brink of divorce. At this point they are usually blaming each other for the other’s negative qualities, which they actually knew about from the beginning but denied to themselves and each other. (And BTW, couples therapy has a much better chance if you come in when problems are starting rather than when you’re both almost out of hope.)

In fact, frequently those negative qualities are variations of the very same qualities they initially liked in each other. One of the most common pairings is an expressive, dynamic person with a quiet, seemingly calmer partner. The dynamic person likes the reserved steadiness of the quieter one, while the quieter one enjoys the excitement of the dynamic one. Over time however, the dynamic partner can grow resentful of the quiet one’s withdrawal and unresponsiveness, whereas the quiet partner feels hurt by the expressive partner’s criticism and accusations. This is just one of millions of possible examples.

Not to say that ease and comfort with a new person are bad, but they also may indicate something else that many people don’t think about, which is a kind of unconscious familiarity associated with early childhood patterns.

Many times it is only later in relationships that we realize that the person we picked actually has some similar traits to our father or mother — and often traits that are difficult for us to tolerate. They are difficult to tolerate precisely because they were the very same traits that were problematic with our parents! In the courting and honeymoon phases of the new relationship we can be drawn to the comfort of the familiarity, without fully appraising or anticipating the downsides.

It is said that people seek similarity, but it’s also said that opposites attract. I believe both are true, but usually in different dimensions. People often are attracted to others who share common interests but have complementary personalities. By that I mean something like what I described earlier, such as one person more expressive, one quieter; one more social, one more of a homebody; and so on.

I believe that the significance of common interests is overrated. A paucity of common interests gets blamed when relationships go south, but they are rarely the central problem. Nonetheless, it is good to have some — mostly in terms of having enough in common that there are things that you enjoy spending time doing together.

The more important domains to consider are personality and values, and when it comes to personality, the key question is how does your potential partner handle stress.

During the honeymoon period, or when things are relatively carefree, you won’t have as much chance to assess this, except in glimmers. But everyone has coping mechanisms that they resort to under stress, and they may not be pretty. Blaming, becoming defensive, withdrawing, trying to fix things or telling others what to do, over-eating or under-eating, and denial are just a few. (Of course, there are better coping mechanisms, which I model in my other articles, but you don’t have to worry about those!)

You will want to know what your prospective partner’s go-to mechanisms are and how well you tolerate those. By the same token, it’s good to know what your own are and how your partner will tolerate those! The best way to determine these things is to observe yourself and your partner under stress and see what the typical patterns are. That’s why it’s important to have enough experience together beyond the honeymoon period before making a long-term commitment, in order to see each other in a more realistic light.

As Dan Wile so wisely points out, there will always be some set of things that you’re not crazy about in any particular person you pick. No one is perfect (even though they may look that way during the initial attraction phase, or from the outside). Part of the trick is figuring out which set of problems you can accept the most. I won’t be able to exhaust all the categories and sub-categories here, but I’ll talk about some of the ones that come up most commonly in the couples I see. Beyond that, think for yourself about which problems in a relationship would be easier or harder to live with.

One potential shortcut to get an early preview of coping styles is to ask what was stressful for your partner in their childhood — especially before the age of 12 or 13 — and how did they cope. For example, if their parents’ fighting was stressful, did they try to intervene in the fight or did they try to slink away and avoid it. An intervener is more likely to be aggressive under stress, while the avoider is more likely to be passive or withdrawn.

Coping mechanisms developed early in life are apt to persist through life unless people do considerable work on themselves to change things, and even then it’s mostly a matter of moderation rather than eradication.

Some people will answer that they didn’t really have any stresses. Sometimes they really didn’t. But sometimes this can be a sign of a denying coping style because there actually were stresses but they keep them out of consciousness to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Also, some stresses — like emotional neglect or just low levels of emotional expression in general — can be fairly subtle and unrecognized as such.

So it’s important to think about personality variables, but another huge area of importance in choosing a partner is values. I’ve written more extensively about values in many of my articles (e.g., Cut to the Chase), but it definitely pays to clarify your values in the top content areas, make sure you’re in alignment on a majority of them, and that the differences you do have are not too polar. The top content areas are the ones that are always identified in the popular press as things people fight over, such as money, sex, parenting, housework and extended family (e.g., in-laws!). In each of these categories individuals will tend toward one side or the other and it’s best if you and your mate are in the same ballpark.

For example, with money it’s usually about spending vs. saving. Some people are frugal and concerned about saving for later, others want to seize the day and live for the moment. When it comes to parenting, the most cited conflict is between discipline and freedom. With sex, two dimensions stand out: intensity of desire (which practically speaking usually translates into frequency), and novelty vs. routine (or spontaneous vs. planned).

There are several organizing principles that overarch all the categories, and these are the ones that merge more into personality factors. I just mentioned one of them, which is novelty vs. security. Some people are more oriented to new experience: stimulation seeking, adventure, and the like. Others place a higher value on security and caution, which is expressed in desires for things like routine, planning, organization, and safety. This dimension describes another common personality pairing, which can roughly correspond to the expressive/quiet combination I talked about at the beginning, or may take other forms. These qualities may vary by context, but people generally tend to lean one way or the other. So a person whose core orientation is more security-based will tend to be more frugal in the money arena, prefer predictable sex, and perhaps a more organized household.

With all of these value dichotomies, bear in mind that neither pole is good or bad — both are useful, and it’s more a matter of balance and agreement between the partners

Another central axis is togetherness vs. autonomy. Some people crave closeness (emotional and/or physical) and want to be with each other a lot of the time, while others need more time to themselves and value being able to make independent decisions. Again people tend to pair up at somewhat unequal points on this spectrum, but the further apart you are as a couple, the more work you’ll have to do to manage those differences.

Perhaps one of the most significant dimensions is what John Gottman identifies as meta-emotion, or how you feel about emotions. The basic difference here is whether you think emotions are something worth paying attention to and talking about, or not. If one partner is strongly in the attention-to-emotions camp and the other is not, that’s going to be more difficult. Bear in mind that those who don’t value emotions are less likely to be pro-therapy if the going gets tough.

A lot can be learned by investigating and observing both of your family cultures, since that’s where most of these values come from. People usually adopt the values of their family-of-origin (the family you came from) or they rebel against them, and sometimes it’s a mix with some values adopted and some opposed. And then some of the high-level, personality-related values like security/novelty may be a blend of acquired values (nurture) and temperament (nature). Genetics and the atmosphere of the family-of-origin each have their separate influences which can combine in different ways. For instance, genetic ADHD + adventurous parents = extremely adventurous, vs. genetic timidity + adventurous parents = mildly adventurous.

Generally, the most relationship-friendly partners will come from intact families where people may have disagreements but they treat each other respectfully and kindly, there is open and clear affection for one another, and there are no significant addictions or abuses (particularly on the parts of the parents). To the extent that these things are not present, more work or therapy may be needed in the relationship. By the way, excitement and attraction are something, but they are rarely the most significant criteria for a partner, and often get people in trouble. They get people in trouble because they distract you from the things that really matter.

If you have already chosen a relationship in which you have bigger differences on some of these dimensions, and things are difficult, you basically have two options. You can grow as a person in your capacity to accept your partner and work on bridging the differences, or call it quits and find another relationship that’s a better match. Therapy can help with either of those things.

The thing that doesn’t work is blaming your partner and waiting for him or her to change.

If you liked this, you might enjoy A Tale of Two Stories

Robert Solley is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Noe Valley, San Francisco.

Image Credits: Flowers, Bi-Racial Couple, Money, Jump

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