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How We Really Pick Our Romantic Partners

Balancing what you can give with what you can get.

Key points

  • Making yes/no decisions when someone asks you out is not really choosing a partner because you are not pursuing the kind of person you want.
  • When asked why they chose their partner, most people talk about their own needs and how their partner could fulfill them.
  • If you choose someone, you should consider what you can give and add to the other person’s life.

Most single people date, and many go on to form more lasting romantic relationships or even permanent couplings. But, to what extent do people consciously choose their partners?

In discussing relationship patterns, I frequently ask people whether they chose their partner or whether they were the ones doing the choosing. They frequently state that their partner pursued and asked them out on a date, and they said “yes.”

If you are the one being asked out, you are usually making a “yes or no” decision.

Making yes or no decisions is not really choosing because you are not pursuing an intentional goal of obtaining a relationship with a certain kind of person.

Think about where you are in your life. For many of us, this was simply a function of yes or no decisions. “Would you like to be my friend?” “Would you like to have a drink?” “Would you like to live here?” “Would you like to go out on a date?” Based on your answers, you will indeed end up somewhere; but did you actually choose your destination? I am going to say “no”; you did not consciously choose where you were going. Many people who get into relationships this way do not end up feeling loved or valued. They do not feel chosen. Rather, they feel like their partner “settled” and they were consolation prizes.

So, what would choosing your partner look like? I recently asked clients if they chose their partners. Almost everyone said “yes." And, so, I asked the person to tell their partner why they chose them.

When asked why they chose their partner, most people responded with statements of their own needs and how their partner could fulfill them.

Examples of this type of needs-based choosing include:

“Because she loves me.” “Because he is a great provider.” “Because she takes care of my needs.”

If you choose someone, you should consider what you can give and add to the other person’s life.

Examples of this type of secure-based choosing include:

“Because she is a beautiful person.” “Because I want to give myself to him.” “Because I want to love and cherish her.”

This type of choosing is based in love as something to be given rather than a need to be met.

This type of self-actualized “secure-based choosing” is a value-added proposition whereas needs-based choosing takes away from the other person and comes out of a sense of lack and belief in scarcity.

Those with secure attachment styles come to relationships feeling whole and that they have much to give. Because they were raised in supportive environments where parents were consistently warm, available, and responsive, the world was a safe and predictable place, and others were always available to provide love and support when needed, they come to relationships feeling that they have had most of their needs met. As such, they come offering a secure base and with love to share and give.

People with insecure attachment styles, at least before they heal themselves, often come to relationships with unmet needs. Those with dismissing styles may have a need for unconditional love and validation. Those with preoccupied styles may have a need for a high level of consistency in their partners providing love and reassurance. Those with fearful attachment styles may need foremost a sense of trust, safety, and security.

Attachment styles are fundamental personality dispositions that develop in childhood in the context of how parents respond to the child’s dependency needs. There are four styles. In addition to the secure style described above, these are labeled dismissing, preoccupied, and fearful.

Dismissing attachment develops when parents consistently reject the child’s negative feelings (like sadness) and needs for comfort and reassurance. In those environments, expressions of love are usually given out conditionally depending on whether the child is conforming to the parents’ expectations of high achievement, independence, and strength (not looking hurt, sad, or needy). By extension, love was not unconditional and their more negative emotions were denied and not validated. So, they had to bury those needs. Thus, they have great difficulty giving these aspects of a relationship to others while at the same time expecting others to meet their needs for validation, admiration, and unconditional positive regard.

Preoccupied attachment can develop when parents are inconsistent in their expressions of love and care. Sometimes they are warm and accepting and at others moody and even cold and rejecting. In those environments, children learn to closely monitor and stay near the parent because they don’t trust the parent to be there when needed. They grow up believing that others cannot be trusted to consistently love them. Hence, they need a great deal of reassurance of the other person’s love and may test the other person’s commitment and consistency. Because they are focused on their own needs for love, they may be somewhat reactive and behave inconsistently themselves in providing love to others.

Fearful attachment can develop when the parents are frightened or frightening or otherwise (as in the case of serious parental mental health issues) unable to comfort the child. In this case, the child cannot find a way to feel safe and in control, particularly when it comes to relationships. As grown-ups, they may be unpredictable in how they feel and behave. By extension, they may struggle to be stable enough for their partners to trust them, all while testing the limits of their partner’s trustworthiness and stability.

Ironically, for each of the insecure styles, those things that people need from their partners are exactly those aspects of a relationship that they struggle the most to give.

So, whatever your style:

  • Choose someone who you can value and cherish and whose life you want to add to. Don’t sit and wait and hope that the right person will come to you.
  • Nurture those aspects of yourself that you can freely give.
  • Get some of your needs met from people other than your romantic partner.
  • Try to give to the other person those things that you yourself would most like to receive.
  • Tell your partner, “I choose you,” and then tell them how you want to enrich their lives.

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