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The Most Crucial Trait to Look for in a Partner

If you are looking for love, this quality is the most important box to check.

Source: nd3000/Shutterstock

If you are dating, you're probably processing a lot of information. You are a researcher of sorts, making sense of a pool of data.

You are evaluating yourself, asking questions like:

  • Am I emotionally ready for a relationship?
  • How attractive am I to a potential romantic partner?
  • How will I know when I have found “The One?"

You are evaluating your dates, asking questions like:

  • How attracted am I to this person?
  • Can I see myself building a life with them?
  • Never mind that: Can I see myself having a second date with them?

As you consider all of this information, you need to discern the stuff that’s really important from the stuff that’s not. I want to call your attention to what I think is the most important quality to look for in a potential romantic partner. This quality is not apparent on their Bumble profile, but you can find clues about its presence or absence even on your first date. This quality is essential for the long-term viability of any relationship — and it's a quality that you both need in order to create the foundation for a happy and healthy romantic relationship.

That quality: Relational self-awareness. Relational self-awareness is the ability to take a curious stance vis-a-vis yourself. People who have relational self-awareness can:

  • Talk about their earlier relational experiences and how they shaped their relationships today.
  • Turn their attention inward and name what they are feeling, versus just acting out what they are feeling.
  • View a relationship problem as a combination of “some stuff I did wrong” and “some stuff you did wrong.”
  • Listen to feedback about themselves without fighting back or running away. Or, perhaps more realistically, they can catch themselves as they start to fight back or run away, and try again to listen to the feedback with an open heart.

If what you want is a long-term relationship, then finding someone with relational self-awareness is far more important than finding someone who “checks the boxes” of education level, income, height, or any of the myriad other things with which we tend to concern ourselves. That’s because long-term love is about choosing someone who will be by your side when things hit the fan. When you’re in one of those less-than-fairy-tale moments, you need someone who will sit with you shoulder-to-shoulder, looking together with you at the problems you face.

So how can you assess someone’s level of relational self-awareness as you’re getting to know them? (You could ask whether they have read Loving Bravely. Just kidding.) Here are two strategies to assess your date’s level of relational self-awareness:

1. Watch their stimulus-response process.

Our days are filled with moments (stimuli) in which we need to choose how to react (a response). Notice how your date responds to the inevitable awkward moments. For example: You’re out to dinner, and the waiter brings them the wrong entrée; you’re driving somewhere, and someone cuts them off; you’re at Target, and the cashier forgets to hand them a receipt. When this stuff hits the fan, we can respond in one of three ways:

  • Fight: Get loud, blame, and make demands.
  • Flee: Shut down, feel ashamed, run away, and get walked all over.
  • Study the moment: Pause, gather ourselves together and find a way to stand up for ourselves without putting others down.

Each of us is prone to knee-jerk fight-or-flight reactions, but with relational self-awareness, we can choose that amazing third option. We can pause, regulate our emotions, and handle a situation in such a way that we can meet our own needs without trampling over someone else. If your date has relational self-awareness, you will see them handle that awkward moment with the waiter, driver, or cashier with care.

Why does it matter how a potential partner handles these frustrating moments? Because at some point, sooner or later, you are going to cause their frustrating moment. You will do something they find annoying, disrespectful, or weird. Instead of a partner who is going to blame you or silently retreat from you, you want to build a life with someone who will say something like, “I’m having a hard time with what you just did. I really want to talk to you about it in a way that helps you listen to me, and I want to listen to you in a way that helps you to talk to me.”

That’s relational self-awareness in action.

2. Listen to how they talk about their relationships, especially past romantic relationships.

Another way to get an early clue about someone's relational self-awareness is by paying attention to how they talk about their relationships, especially past romantic relationships. People who don’t have much relational self-awareness tell stories (especially love stories) that are full of blame and shame. They tend to cast themselves as victims and other people as suckers, losers, or fools. By contrast, individuals who are relationally self-aware tell love stories that have shades of gray. Their stories include context — “It wasn’t the right time for us"; generosity of intention — “She was suffering and therefore not able to connect with me in a healthy way"; and a focus on growth — "It was painful, but I learned from the experience." (I created a table to bring this idea to life.)

As you sift through all of the "data" that daters need to sift through, I invite you to hold onto these two tools. If you're with someone who sends back their under-cooked steak with a pause, some compassion, and a respectful request, you may be on the right track. And if you're dating someone who talks about their ex with generosity and shades of gray, you may have found a keeper.

This article also appeared at

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