- Reflective listening quickly shows whether a person is genuinely interested in another and understanding that person's thoughts and opinions.
- The ability to stay thoughtful when stressed rather than give into reactivity is a hallmark of emotional maturity.
- Secure individuals do not blame-shift and create alternative narratives that shield ego and deflect responsibility.
Therapists who work with single clients, or sometimes those unhappily coupled, often get asked about the best qualities to look for when dating and potentially mating.
Admittedly, that's a loaded question. We're well aware that when people are in the throes of infatuation, they tend to overlook subtle signs or blatant red flags in that sudden rush of feel-good hormones. Romantic love triggers the brain's pleasure centers, writes Stephanie Capioppo, author of the book Wired for Love, released this month and the subject of a February 2022 post.1
While such a list of desirable qualities could invariably run from Maine to Florida, a few traits stand out when discerning a new person's character.
As you get to know someone, of course, people will chat and share a bit about themselves. Look deeper, however, to see certain patterns. How good of a listener is your date?
Listening to reflect what you say, along with open posture and leaning in, conveys interest. Understanding, too. If what comes next is a paraphrase of what you shared, wonderful. Frequent interruptions, questioning to prove points, shutting down the conversation, or defensiveness are potential land mines.
When there's a tough topic, how does the person begin? John and Julie Gottman advocate "the soft startup," whereby a topic gets raised in a gentle way without blame or judgment, devoid of criticism or contempt. They've developed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness—that they've found can predict a breakup if not corrected.2
Stonewalling equates to withdrawal from the discussion; the silent treatment, often based in anger, has a hurtful or punitive motive to cause distress.
Managing One's Responses
When we are more thoughtful, able to access reason, and check out the evidence for stress-filled automatic thoughts, as cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches us, we make better choices. This includes what comes out of one's mouth.
Reactivity, on the other hand, stems from poor emotional regulation and faulty reasoning. In my books on anger, we call this Feelthink, where one believes something so strongly that one runs with that frequently incorrect belief as if it is fact.3 This creates more problems than connection. The way to get beyond reactivity is to know your triggers, understand that many of them are positional, not personal, and commit to working on yourself to become the best human you can be with a capacity for empathy, kindness, and calm.
Signs of this may include a person's self-care habits, boundaries, and even his disclosing he's benefited from therapy. Such honesty may take time but this work on self and gradually sharing a few vulnerabilities creates closer connections in a couple.
If someone new in your life urges you to share more and more, however, without reciprocating that type of self-disclosure, pull back a bit. You want to give someone the benefit of the doubt but also be cautious of being played. Aim for those who are emotionally mature. You only know this if you take your time to get to know someone in various situations.
Acceptance and Responsibility
These qualities go hand in hand, and here's why: Blame is the polar opposite of accepting responsibility.
Pay attention to how much a person owns his or her role in any given situation, prior relationship woes, or just life challenges. If your date shifts blame and puffs him- or herself up at the expense of some other person, view this cautiously. Give a free pass to counterattacks, righteous indignation, and acting innocent and you'll realize later that you may be on the receiving end of such undesirable behavior.
A secure individual admits to mistakes, self-created disappointments, and failure. A strong individual uses disagreement as a chance to better understand, achieve empathy, and establish more connection.
One troubled with insecurities and a too-large ego deflects. "That wouldn't have happened if you had only..." or "It's your fault that.." or "How could I have known that you would..."
Blame games render finger-pointers powerless to change things. Thus, their deflections and defensiveness become self-perpetuating. This sets couples up to be at complete opposite ends of conflict. Conflict and disagreement, which are normal in any relationship, ought to be healthily embraced in a problem-solving way.4
We're not talking flexible joints here, though good health is for sure a good characteristic. Mental flexibility refers to how one shifts when disappointments creep into daily life, plans change, or sometimes drastically alter life's course. The global pandemic did this to people's travel, work/life balance, life's little moments, and big-picture dreams.
With a flexible individual, you'll see healthy self-talk and a cognitive reframe that yields a silver lining out of an unfortunate event or disappointment.
A flexible date allows for independence, too. There's no smothering, no jealousy of your having interests, friends, and a way of being outside of a newly developing relationship.
The opposite of flexibility is control, at least control in a limiting, not liberating sense. Humans all desire, and indeed need, basic control over their own affairs, their thinking, finances, and comings and goings as grownups. However, when a date whines about your having a life beyond, pay attention.
As you couple up and a date tries to control the majority of decisions, your access to others, and later to finances and information as you share more of life together, see these behaviors as red flags. Not only is the controller's insecurity surfacing but these traits can become incendiary, igniting trust issues and/or domestic disturbances or violence.
When deciding upon how to spend your time and with whom to invest your energies, positive qualities build the foundation you'll stand upon later. What you tolerate or deny now determines if you'll stand solidly when winds blow in your direction, or whether your relationship falters.
Copyright 2022 by Loriann Oberlin, MS, LCPC