The Only Thing You Need to Find in a Partner
Someone may have 10 or 20 of the qualities on your list. Only this one matters.
Posted Aug 19, 2014
Every day, a new listicle pops up on our Internet feeds, promising “The 10 Things Women Really Want,” “The 5 Things You Should Look For in a Man,” or “The 7 Things That Make a Great Catch.” Whether oriented toward attracting a partner or how to find a new one—two sides of the same coin—they all list qualities that, presumably, you should seek in a partner.
But I want to explore the idea that, regardless of how admirable the items on those lists, there is really only one quality you should be looking for.
I recently discussed problems with “deal-breakers” in dating and relationships—certain qualities that you simply will not accept in a partner. My primary issue with deal-breakers is that they elevate one or more characteristics to a level of importance that trumps all others, which may blind you to otherwise fantastic people who happen to possess one trait you really dislike but which, at the end of the day, may not be all that important, especially if the quality is superficial.
Perhaps, then, instead of focusing on what you don’t want in a date or partner, you should think about what you do want—which is what those listicles offer. Focusing on what you want, while still keeping in mind what you don’t, is a good step. But the listicle's set of desired qualities may just end up being a mirror of your deal-breakers. If you say you don’t want to date someone who is overweight, you might simply say that you do want someone who's in good shape. If you don’t want short, you probably do want tall, and so forth.
In the end, this leads you to the same problem as before: By dating according to a list of qualities you can check off, you elevate those qualities above all others, even if individually they’re not that important—and if, collectively, they might be impossible to find in one person.
The problem with lists like these, whether of likes or dislikes, is that, again, they often describe relatively superficial qualities—looks, job status, personal habits. Such traits are easy to assess quickly. I’m not saying these qualities are unimportant—they at least help us screen for the people we are most likely to be attracted to, so we can try to meet them and see if there’s something more. But again, we can easily exaggerate their importance, happy that we’ve finally found someone who hits the points on our lists—and risk neglecting what we really want in a partner.
And what is this? Michael Jackson had the answer: The way someone makes you feel.
After you’ve met someone and spent some time getting to know her or him, and considering whether you want to get more serious, your focus should change. Once you're happy with what that person is like, think about how he or she makes you feel.
In the long run, this should be your one deal-breaker: if your partner doesn’t make you feel the way you want to, this is not the right person for you. It doesn’t matter if he or she has all the superficial qualities you seek and none of the ones you don’t; when it comes down to it, there’s only one quality that matters, and you can’t know whether a partner has it until you’ve been with that person for a while. He or she may look great “on paper,” but that doesn’t mean he or she is going to treat you the way you want or make you feel the way you want.
That’s what really matters.
Of course nobody’s perfect. But some people are good for you, and what makes them good for you may not be their hair, clothes, or job, or even deeper qualities like compassion and sense of humor. It isn't even a matter of your partner simply being kind, considerate, respectful, supportive, and so on. A person can be all of this and more, simply a wonderful person all around, and still not make you feel the way you want to feel, which comes down to fit, a mental or emotional version of physical “chemistry.” This aspect of finding the “right” person is highly subjective, having to do with what you as an individual want and need from another person and how you would like to feel when you’re with someone. That’s why I haven’t been more specific, saying that you need to find a person who make you feel loved, or appreciated, or safe–all of these are great, but each of us values them in different amounts. Once you know how you want a person to make you feel, though, you need to look for it, hold out for it, and embrace it when you find it.
This one essential quality in a person is also much more difficult to find and assess than the things you normally find on the listicles. It’s not that the qualities that are listed are not good ones: some focus on superficial features, but many others (such as this recent one here at PT) contain things like integrity, kindness, and a sense of humor, all undeniably good things in a partner. At the end of the day, though, these qualities are just means to an end: making you feel the way you want to feel. But it's hard to put that on a list because it is different for every person. We can appreciate many fine qualities in a person, but that doesn’t mean she or he is going to make us feel the way we want to feel. You only learn that over time.
(I know what you're probably thinking: “Who has the time?” But this is worth the time, trust me.)
Of course, you won't know how a person makes you feel right away, so sure, go for the more obvious qualities you like. Just be careful not to place too much emphasis on these in the hopes of long-term happiness. Once you realize this, then you may be ready to take some chances with people who might not have all those other qualities, and might even have a deal-breaker or two, but might also have the potential to make you feel how you want to feel–and I suspect you’ll discover that's much more important.
For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on relationships, self-loathing, and other topics, see here.