After a particularly bad breakup a couple of years ago, I got some great advice from a therapist (I love therapy, by the way – sometimes I wish I could hire a therapist to follow me around in my day-to-day life and make comments like, “the way you asked for that double chocolate ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s makes me think you have unresolved issues with your 3rd grade teacher,” etc. But I digress).
At this particular time I was still hurt from a breakup but motivated to move forward and find a better relationship. I was going on a lot of dates, but driving myself crazy overanalyzing everything and wondering how I could “know” early on if something was worth pursuing. It takes time to know if a relationship is right, and in the beginning your intuition can be out of whack because of the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding questions like, “Where is this going?” “Does she like me as much as I like her?” “Is X issue a dealbreaker?” etc. I later figured out, after having a relationship I thought would be short-term term turn into the real deal (going on two years now), that it’s a huge mistake to overthink things early on.
I’m going to define a “new” relationship as the first six months. This is the “don’t know mind” period. You don’t know what will happen, so don’t make assumptions.
Anyway, let me tell you what this particularly astute therapist asked me to do. She asked me to really think about what I needed in a relationship. I’m not talking about superficial qualities in the other person that I thought I wanted – I’m talking about core internal needs that needed to be fulfilled. She told me to put pen to paper and create my own list. I took the exercise seriously, considered what had been missing in my past relationships, and wrote down what hoped to find in the future. Here’s what I came up with (word for word copied from the original paper):
- Safety/security – not worrying what’s happening in the relationship. Feeling reassured and loved unconditionally.
- Love/admiration – feeling loved and admired for exactly who I am. Feeling love and admiration for the person I’m dating.
- Fun – being able to be silly and relaxed.
- Communication and emotional connection –> feeling known and understood
- Mutual respect
- Arguing well and accepting responsibility (not to be right, but to compromise) –> consistency
- Learning and growing from each other – I learn from him and vice versa
- Physical attraction and intimacy
I may seem like a simple exercise, but let me tell you why it’s also brilliant. The problem is that there are two dueling forces at work when you’re dating. On one hand, there’s the part of you that has an idea of the exact type of person you want to be with in terms of age, appearance, profession and maybe even down to interest in golf or rock climbing or World of Warcraft or whatever. This part doesn’t want to “waste time” on anyone else. On the other hand, there may be a part of you that wants to give someone a chance, because you never know how things could turn out.
So how do you reconcile these two sides?
Having a well thought out list of fundamental needs gives you an easy reference point for understanding if a relationship has the potential to make you happy in the long term. It allows you to bypass your brain, which is probably is just overanalyzing everything and driving you crazy anyway, and tap into your intuition.
To create a list like this you need to dig deep and move beyond superficial criteria. For example, the following items do NOT belong on this list:
- “He needs to be six feet tall”
- “She needs to be under thirty”
- “He needs to make as least X amount of money”
- “She needs a college degree”
Instead, rephrase your needs and desires so that they’re about YOU and not the other person. For example:
- “He needs to be six feet tall” becomes “I need to be attracted to him”
- “She needs to be under thirty” becomes “She needs to be as energetic as I am”
- “He needs to make as least X amount of money” becomes “I need to respect his career ambitions”
- “She needs a college degree” becomes “We need to have an intellectual connection”
Every time I see a person cut short a relationship with someone they really like because he or she doesn’t match externally with who they “thought” they’d be with, it makes me cringe. You don’t need the other person to “be” anything. You just need to FEEL a certain way with that person.
So sit down, grab a pen and paper, and really consider what’s important to you. Think about what kind of person you are, and what has and hasn’t worked for you before. General is better than specific. If you find yourself writing down something limiting or superficial, take a step back and try to deconstruct it so you’re getting to the core of how that issue related to YOU. Keep it relatively short (no more than ten criteria), or else you risk going off on unimportant tangents.
So now that you have your list, let’s move on. On one hand you don’t want to let someone pass you by for a stupid external reason. What about the opposite mistake – staying with someone who judges you, who makes you feel uneasy, or overall doesn’t treat you like the superstar you are?
I remember in my younger days, before I developed the ironclad self-esteem I have today, I used to put up with crap like that. No more. And here is where your list comes into play. At any point when you’re questioning your new relationship but aren’t sure why, look at your list and ask yourself if your basic needs are being violated. If the answer is no, put your worries on the back burner and let whatever situation is bothering you play out. Don’t look ahead 10 years and think, “But I want to have three kids and he only wants two,” or, “I always thought I’d end up with another lawyer.” Give me a break. You can worry about those things much farther along the road. Don’t walk away from a person who could make you really happy for a worry that may never even come to fruition.
On the other hand, is this person violating your list by some permutation of not treating you well? That’s where your alarm radar should go up.
When you take the time to formulate a list like this, it helps to remove confusion. Instead of obsessing about whether your new relationship is perfect (which no relationship is), you can just ask yourself two questions:
- Am I having fun? Do I want to go on another date with this person?
- Is anything on my list getting violated?
Keep it that simple. In early stages – the first six months when you stay in “don’t know mind” – it IS that simple. These months are a freebee. You just don’t know what’s going to happen or how everything will play out. Things that seem like big issues initially may disappear, or explosive initial chemistry may fizzle out. It’s best not to make assumptions in either direction.
I look back at my prolific dating days fondly. It’s was fun to go out to new places, meet new people, and get wined and dined. And it would have been a mistake to let the uncertainty of when and how I’d meet the “right” person create unnecessary anxiety and stress. Even if you make mistakes or fumble around the dating world like a blind person (like I have), everything will turn out alright in the end. Just stick to your core values and stay true to your needs in the process.