Most of us want a happy and healthy long-term relationship, but most of us are not taught how to go about getting what we want. Heartbreak can especially make us lose hope on love and make us cynical about if it’s even achievable at all. The majority of us have had past relationships that we thought would last but ended up turning increasingly bad. I know I have in the past, and these bad relationships have a very big potential for causing pain. Heartbreak is undoubtedly one of the most painful experiences in a life. How many people have felt deep regret afterwards and thought to themselves:
“Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to predict whether or not a relationship would be healthy in the long-term from the very first date?”
This experience of heartbreak and the answer to the question were what first brought me into the field of relationship psychology. Thankfully for us science is here to help and can provide concrete answers and strategies to help us choose the right partner for us. It is possible and very realistic to be able to find a partner who will provide a lifetime of happiness and love, and we’re about to find out how.
Define Your Goal
Before we start it’s wise to take a look and see what you truly want. For most people reading this the goal will be to form a happy and healthy long-term relationship and you can proceed to the next section. But it is important that if you are unsure about what you want that you take time to reflect now. Some people don’t want long-term relationships but prefer to stay single and they lead happy lives by doing so. Others might prefer a relationship setup that isn’t conventional. The following guidance is meant for those seeking a long-term relationship.
Learn From The Past
We can learn a great deal about what we want in a partner by taking an honest look at what went wrong in past relationships. Although it can be hard to admit that we could have made better choices in the past it can give us some very useful information and often shows a clear pattern of relationships that we’ve been choosing.
Perhaps you’ve been dating men/women who are fun at first but turn out to be less than kind the further down the line as you ignored their unkindness from the start of the relationship. It can be very easy in the first stages of a relationship to only see the best in a partner and to dismiss any poor behaviours, or to think they will change in the long-term. Some people do take note of their behaviours and change over time but a large majority do not.
It can also be difficult but beneficial to look at any personal behaviours you have that you could work on. If you have difficulties with trust this would be a great area to acknowledge and work on, or perhaps you have problems with intimacy and get scared when a partner gets too close. You may also have issues with lacking in confidence and undervaluing yourself as a person. We all have at least one area of ourselves that we could improve. Taking an honest look at yourself isn’t to in any way criticise or judge yourself but to instead identify parts of you that you can work on to increase your future personal and relationship happiness.
Define What You Want
Before we start dating it’s important to have some knowledge of what to aim for in order to give ourselves the best chance of a happy relationship in the long-term. The greatest mistake that most people make is not knowing what they need, and not evaluating their partner before they enter into a relationship. This is where science can greatly assist and inform us.
When thinking of the most important attributes of a potential partner many people will value high levels of wealth and attractiveness over other attributes. This makes sense as before the 1850s the odds of dying from starvation and disease were extremely high. Wealth and physical attractiveness were both clear markers of whether a potential partner could keep you and your future children alive.
The problem (albeit an incredibly good one) with this is that now we have almost no starvation in developed countries, advances in healthcare have made dying from infectious diseases, illness and childbirth the lowest it’s ever been in the history of humanity, and our societies are now the most wealthy they’ve ever been. Meaning that choosing a mate based on attractiveness and wealth isn’t necessarily a wise strategy anymore but a leftover vestige of our species’ past. It’s the other traits of a partner that we often overlook that have the most impact on our future relationship happiness.
Studies have shown that physical attractiveness leads to people attributing positive characteristics onto attractive people that aren’t objectively there. This is known as the beauty fallacy. Physical beauty can distort our perceptions of a person and this can be especially true when choosing a romantic partner. Physical attractiveness and wealth don’t at all indicate how kind, loyal, or supportive a partner will be. People in relationships with physically attractive and/or wealthy partners are also no happier than people who are in relationships with a partner of average attractiveness and wealth. High levels of attractiveness and wealth also have no effect on relationship stability above the poverty line. Of course being attractive and being wealthy also doesn’t discount the chance that they could be a kind and supportive partner, but it isn’t in itself an indicator of that. Whereas other traits such as kindness and being securely attached are a much better indicator of how well a partner is going to treat you in the long-term. It’s important too to be attracted to a potential partner, but that you don’t solely value this to the detriment of looking for more reliable traits.
Traits can be defined as a person’s characteristics and behaviours that stay mostly stable over time. We all have traits that are consistent throughout our lives, some people are naturally more extroverted and talkative, whereas others are more easily irritated by stimulation and prefer to spend time alone. That’s why selecting traits and looking for them in a partner is your best way of predicting your future relationship happiness. Most people’s personalities do not change significantly over their lifetime.
One very useful way to group traits is to look at a person’s attachment style. Attachment styles are groups of traits that describe how people are likely to relate to each other. They are formed from a combination of how they were parented as a child, their genetics, and their life experiences. The three types of attachment styles are: secure, anxious, and avoidant. Let’s take an overview of each style:
Securely attached people: Self-assured, know that they deserve love and that they can get their needs met. Trust well. Are confident in themselves. Are responsive to the needs of others and meet them calmly. Have a consistent mood and low levels of anxiety and anger. Aren’t afraid of intimacy or of difficult conversations.
Anxiously attached people: Worry about others leaving them and so cling to them. Are people-pleasers. Become distressed quite easily. Retreat when they get scared of being too clingy and close to others. Can be irritable, angry and depressed.
Avoidantly attached people: Retreat from intimacy, enjoy lots of time alone. Find it difficult to meet the needs of others. Are fearful of getting too close to others and withdraw when they do. In this regard they are similar to anxiously attached people but without the need to cling. They can also be critical and use strategies such as criticism to shield against intimacy.
As you have probably seen securely attached people make for the best partners.
The best traits to aim for
Now we know more about what to look for and have learnt valuable information from our past relationships it’s time to define exactly what we want in a future partner. Out of all the traits you might consider in a potential partner it’s best to narrow down the most important ones to a maximum of three to five. The more traits you look for the harder it becomes to find a partner who matches them and also to evaluate dates. Three of the best traits to look for are:
Securely attached, kind, low to medium novelty seeking
People with high levels of novelty seeking get bored easily and like to be doing new things, they are the adventurers, the constant party-goers, the people who are unable to relax and stay still. The higher the level of novelty seeking a person has the more likely they will cheat. One day you’ll be the object of their boredom and they’ll look for something new and exciting. Although not all people high in the trait of novelty seeking are cheaters, it does predispose them to being so. Looking for this trait early on during a date can give you vital information about what your future might hold.
Kindness is also a greatly underrated trait. Kind partners are attentive, empathic, and are reliable. According to research they are better lovers, which isn’t surprising considering kind people are more likely to care about your happiness and will communicate effectively about how to meet your needs, therefore are better able to meet them than an uncaring or irritable partner.
Research has also shown that a partner’s ability to share good news and to be happy and supportive of your own good news is another indicator of future relationship satisfaction.
As previously discussed it would be wise to seek out the following traits of being: stable, secure, and having low to medium novelty seeking. Here are some characteristics of each trait:
Stable (low anger, low anxiety, low depression, kind, supportive, stable mood.)
Securely attached (self-assured, responsive to your needs, effective communicator.)
Low to medium levels of novelty seeking (more likely to be loyal and committed to you.)
Now I want you to list another 7 traits you would wish for in your ultimate partner and rank them in order of how important they are for you.
It would be incredibly rare if you find someone that will tick all the boxes – as none of us are 100% perfect – but by defining clearly what you are looking for you will be able to choose someone perfect for you who will tick most of the boxes. Now that we have a list of traits that we are looking for in our future partner we can use it to evaluate potential future partners.
Date & Evaluate
Date as many people as possible
The best strategy to prevent making a bad choice is to date as many people as possible. Having a wide field of people gives you a far greater chance of finding a person who is perfect for you, who will be able to meet your needs, and who can help you achieve your life-goals. Securely attached people tend to date less and come up on the dating market more rarely as they are more in demand and tend to have long-lasting relationships. This is another great reason to go on dates with many people as you increase your chances of meeting a securely attached partner who will provide you with a lifetime of love and happiness.
Going on many dates also helps prevent choosing someone bad for you out of the strong desire of wanting to be in a relationship, or out of the fear of never finding a partner. It will help you to realise that there are plenty of people who will like you and that there are many options for you to evaluate until you find someone who will be a great long-term partner.
Behave like a securely attached person (even if you have an anxious or avoidant attachment style)
If you have an anxious or avoidant attachment style, imagining how a secure role model that you know would respond to a situation, and responding that way, will help you to make informed and good decisions for yourself. In the long-term it will also help you become more secure as you will be building confidence in yourself and realising that there are plenty of people who will find you attractive. Secure people know that they deserve to have their needs met and quickly reject anyone who can’t meet them. They discard the people who don’t respond to messages in a reasonable timeframe and focus instead on those who are responsive to them and their needs, and have the traits they are looking for.
One fruitful strategy to use in both evaluating potential partners and in all relationships is to effectively communicate our needs. By doing so we see if a potential partner is responsive and able to meet our needs.
Being radically honest on each first date is one way to do this. If getting to the top of your career is the most important goal in your life communicate this. If having a child within 3 years is your top priority then say it. If you never want to have children or get married then tell them. A good potential partner will be supportive of your goals and needs.
Some people might be scared to use this approach as they are worried about putting potential partners off, it’s true this approach may not be right for everyone but here’s why you should try it:
- It shows who will be responsive to your needs and able to meet them in the long-term which is a huge indicator to the health and happiness of your potential future relationship.
- It saves you time as those people who wouldn’t be good long-term partners will either deselect themselves or they will show that they don’t have the traits you need.
Attachment styles have a big impact on behaviour and future relationship happiness. Evaluating the attachment style of your potential partner should be one of your priorities. As we’ve already discussed looking for a secure partner is your best option. The first way to evaluate is to pay close attention to their words and behaviour while referring to the list of the most important traits you are looking for in a potential partner. For example if they tell you about how they always have short relationships, or find commitment hard, that’s a clear sign that they probably have an avoidant attachment style and you should think carefully about entering into a relationship with them.
People often put their best face on especially in the first stages of dating which might make it confusing and difficult to get a read on their attachment style and traits. By gaining information from the people around your potential partner and by observing them you will gain crucial information that can help you to see who a person truly is. Ask their friends what your potential partner is like as a person. Also evaluate the type of friends your potential partner keeps; this can be a big indicator to their quality as a person.
If you can, observe how they are with their parents. Seeing how they behave with their parents can give clues to their attachment style. Looking at your potential future in laws and their behaviour can also be a vital source of information. Although of course all people don’t turn out like their parents it is very true that children do take on some of the traits of their parents both due to genetics and being raised by them. Ask your potential partner about how their parents were over their lifetime. If they had parents who were both unreliable and self-centred, it would be a good idea to pay close attention to the traits of your potential partner and if they in any way take after them.
Red flags are moments of behaviour that give us warnings about potentially bad traits. Here are some you should be on the lookout for:
People who show a pattern of being demanding and/or withdrawing have greater relationship dissatisfaction. If you notice a potential partner making excessive demands you should play close attention to this. Similarly, if they withdraw when you talk about a difficult subject, or when you talk about your needs, this is a big warning sign that they won’t be able to communicate well, meet your needs, or resolve conflict effectively in a long-term relationship.
People who ask very few questions about you and spend the entire time focusing on themselves tend to be high on the narcissism scale and should be avoided at all costs. They will always put their needs over your own and won’t care about meeting yours.
People who are rude to strangers around them such as the waiting staff tend to be demanding and also have unkind traits.
People whose mood changes rapidly tend to be more emotionally unstable and not secure.
People who don’t respond in a reasonable timeframe to your messages show a lack of concern and care. Imagine what it’d be like living with someone like that each day who is disengaged from your needs and from communicating together.
If you notice any of these behaviours it is good to pay attention and to give careful consideration to them when you are evaluating. Some behaviours might be one-offs but most of the time they are part of a pattern of behaviour or in other words they have bad traits that will lead to them being a terrible future partner.
Friends and family are better than you at evaluating
Research has shown that friends, family and even total strangers who have our best interests at heart are much better at evaluating the happiness of our future relationship than we are. This is because it is very easy to be influenced when having feelings for a potential partner. We can miss important information or simply ignore it even when we notice it because we want to believe in a happy future with the person we are having feelings for. This is why having a potential partner meet a group of your friends, and also your family, once they have cleared the first few initial dates is vital. This will help safeguard you from potential flaws in your evaluation of them. Listen carefully to what your friends and family feel about your potential partner, often they can see things that you may have missed.
Of course no one is perfect and discarding someone because they don’t meet one of your criteria might be a mistake. Having some flexibility when making your choice is good as long as you don’t overlook important information that you will later go on to regret. Keeping your own best interests in mind when dating, and relying on the information you are seeing when evaluating, alongside your intuition, are your keys to finding the right partner. Listen to your head, as well as your heart.
Rejecting potential partners quickly when you don’t see the traits you want, and/or you see red flags and bad traits that are deal breakers, is a very useful strategy that helps save you time, and stops you from making a mistake by becoming emotionally invested.
The process at first might take some time to get used to, but once you go on more and more dates you’ll become faster at evaluating, and your sense of whether the person in front of you is right for you or not will grow stronger.
A great partner is within your reach
The initial effort you make will decide a significant part of your future happiness for the rest of your life. With effort and diligence in applying the knowledge you’ve just learnt, that happiness is within your reach. Take risks, be brave, and go get what you want.