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What Keeps People Together and Why They Break Up

Challenge Many of us think of a potential mate as someone who either does or does not possess a range of must-have qualities.

Solution By examining what the qualities we are looking for really mean to us and our long-term happiness, we are more likely to have success in dating.

I talk to a lot of couples, professionally and obviously just as a regular human being with friends. One of the things that I am always most curious to talk to couples about is their initial attraction. What made them decide to get together? And what happened in the first little while that helped that grow and enabled them to create a lasting relationship? The differences are sometimes stark. What brought them together and what keeps them together are rarely the same thing.

That should be obvious. Beginnings of relationships are often at least a little bit superficial, mostly because you don’t really know the person yet. And yet, the criteria for what someone is looking for in a relationship always seems to hover over those initial attractors.

When you talk to people about what they are looking for in another person, you tend to hear the same things over and over again:

I want someone who’s witty. I want someone who likes to hike. I want someone who is ambitious in their career. I want someone who is good looking. I want someone who reads a lot. I want someone who is physically strong.

People have a habit of defining themselves and terms of their likes and preferences. But we are equally defined by the things that we do not like. It is much less common for a person seeking a relationship to be looking for character traits that embody things that they know will hurt their relationship.

Maybe it’s happened, but in my experience, I’ve never encountered a couple who got divorced or went through big relationship problems over the fact that their partner didn’t want to hit the trails, didn’t spend enough time reading, or didn’t like the same sports.

The dating process is about having fun and getting to know people. The initial, more surface oriented factors that comprise your personal taste in dating partners is what makes the beginning of a relationship fun. But there is an opportunity that you must make sure you are seizing in order to size up a person’s character traits and realize if you’ll want to get more serious with them. These things often reveal themselves early.

The types of things that cause relationships to end are things like being a bad listener. Having unrealistic expectations. Irresponsible spending. Lack of emotional identification. Inability to just be real. Temper flare-ups. Perfectionism. Tendencies toward controlling behavior.

We often rationalize these character flaws as personality quirks even though they are big red flags. When you contrast that with the comparatively lightweight nature of the criteria that we select people by -- the kind of superficial traits that comprise our tastes -- it starts to seem like dangerously shortsighted behavior.

What good is a witty person who can’t make you feel safe?

What good is an ambitious, career-driven person if they can’t be real with you?

What good is a person who reads a lot but doesn’t hear a word you say?

When you’re starting out with someone, consider whether you’re being too limited in the way that you’re assessing them as a dating partner. Are there superficial things that you can look past for now? Those things will fade in time. Are your concrete, but ultimately superficial preferences preventing you from dating someone who could be really good for you?

Likewise, are there signs of trouble that you’re writing off because someone does meet other more ‘fun’ qualifications? How’s the future look in that scenario? There’s a good chance that all of the initial attractors will have fallen away, absorbed into the fabric of your connection, and completely overshadowed by problems that may doom your relationship, hurt your quality of life, and ultimately waste your time.

Time and energy are finite resources. When it comes to dating, you need to find a balance of what’s fun, but you also need to temper it with what’s real. You will save yourself a whole lot of heartache if you consider the kinds of things that you’re NOT looking for with the same weight of the things that you find attractive.

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