If you’re searching for a life partner, what values and attributes do you want to see in that individual? That was the question Adam brought to my door. Heading to graduate school in another city, he was a few weeks into an increasingly serious relationship, and he was pondering whether to ask his newfound heartthrob to accompany him.
“OK, so I get that you’re smitten with this lady,” I began. “That’s great, but enjoyable as it is, infatuation clouds perception and judgment. So, I need to press you on how compatible you two really are.”
“Good. That helps, but there’s more. Talk to me about the personal values you want to see in a partner,” I pressed.
Looking for a Compatible Life Partner?
It took some reflection, but Adam replied that he most valued kindness, honesty, self-reliance and optimism. So, of course, I pushed the point. “How many of those values does your would-be partner possess?”
Finding Enduring Attributes
What’s more, he acknowledged he hadn’t given this question much thought, if any; which is the norm for most of us. A recent psychological study demonstrates that many of us fail to assess and contemplate the qualities of those we are courting, even while presuming we are doing just that. While dating is designed to test the interpersonal chemistry, those “tests” usually focus more on surface elements, such as physical appearance, socio-economic status, shared interests and the like. These sorts of characteristics matter but fail to include more enduring attributes, like sensitivity, empathy, loyalty and other traits that often sustain a bond when less durable elements, like physical beauty, fade.
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As anyone who has utilized online dating realizes, these platforms often provide algorithms or other assessment tools to educate users about how well their own qualities align with prospective mates. These can help but still run the risk of the “Photoshop effect,” meaning the tendency to positively amplify one’s public image while downplaying or avoiding the disclosure of personal information others might dislike. So, even when we focus on the specific qualities we desire in a romantic partner, the Photoshop effect can undermine an accurate appraisal, which is what happened to Adam. After I encouraged him to delve more deeply into his sweetheart’s qualities, he returned with a surprising finding.
When we like what we see on the surface, it’s easy to misread what’s on the inside or, if we see something there we’d rather not, look the other way. Early in courtship, most of us are as smitten by the experience of infatuation (being “in love with love”) as by the partner in question. As it turned out, Adam woke up to this blind spot toward his girlfriend over a romantic dinner date.
“The cook messed up her order, and it really set her off. She was rude to the server and complained about it several times during our meal and even later that night,” he reported. “I don’t think she’s as kind and forgiving as I thought.”
Adam had mentally projected his easy-going, live-and-let-live approach onto his lady friend, assuming she was similarly inclined. After discovering his perceptual error, he surmised, probably correctly, that it would only be a matter of time before he would become the target of her critical and judgmental mindset. Soon after, other caution lights began flashing, and Adam had his answer, even if an unwelcome one. Unlike him, many in this conundrum simply rationalize hints of bad behavior in a love interest and press on, often to their detriment.
Couples counselors frequently promote the importance of shared values. And while alignment in this regard with a prospective partner need not be 100%, too many disconnects can spell interpersonal disappointment or disaster. Determining compatibility is best done through closely observing the would-be partner’s behavior, rather than relying on their self-reported list of qualities. After all, it’s not what we claim but what we do that speaks most clearly about who we are.