Dating can be stressful under the best of circumstances. Despite the glut of advice for relationship seekers, it is as hard as ever to find a long-lasting and compatible partner.
As I listen to stories of sequential failed relationships, it becomes clear to me that many well-intended daters continue to make four significant mistakes: They choose the wrong people; yearn for improbable outcomes; don’t learn from past mistakes; and/or are not able to recognize the early cues that signal they’re on the wrong path.
Most often, people continue to make these mistakes because they do not have a deep enough understanding of what compels them to act the way they do. They have not known how to access the knowledge of self they need to change.
If you are one of those determined, well-intentioned souls willing to delve more deeply into your relationship psyche, you can gain the information you need by answering these five questions before embarking on a new relationship. If you fully and courageously answer them, you should recognize what drives your behavior in intimate relationships — and more easily understand why your prior presentations have not worked.
Sometimes in the course of digging deeply into these areas, you may find that you negatively judge or blame yourself. To gain self-compassion and the desire to continue searching, refrain from doing that: Guilt and shame are the enemies of transformation.
As you answer the questions, do not be surprised if you begin thinking of others that may be more unique to your own relationships. Take time to answer in detail, and perhaps even return later to add more thoughts and feelings to your original notes. Many of my patients have found that just the process of answering these five questions evokes a desire for more self-exploration. It often becomes a fascinating maze of self-revelation.
1. Who are the people who have affected you most deeply throughout your life, both positively and negatively, and how has that affected your choice of partners?
From the beginning of your awareness, those upon whom you were dependent for survival and approval will have had the most impact on the way you have learned to give and receive love. But anyone who has touched you deeply, even for a short time, can affect those capabilities.
Those impacting interactions, whether short-lived or long-lived, will directly or indirectly change the way you view and experience every succeeding relationship. Those relationships from your past can leave you traumatized and fearful, or strong and resilient. Sometimes their impact can strongly affect the way you respond to people who are similar in your present life.
Make a list of the most significant people who have deeply influenced what you believe about intimate relationships. Then write down next to each how old you were at the time of the encounter; what the nature of the relationship was; and how it has affected your ability to love and be loved in the present.
Then ask yourself if you consciously or unconsciously avoid those kinds of people in your life, seek them out, or allow them to get away with things you would not tolerate in others. Explore in your mind how you might have been changed by knowing them, and how those impressions affect the way you seek and interact in your current relationships.
2. If you could magically put anyone with whom you’ve had an adult, close, intimate relationship in the same room, and they were 100 percent honest, in what ways would they agree with who you were to them, both positively and negatively?
These descriptions might be expressed in several ways:
How did they experience you sexually?
How did they experience you intellectually?
How did they experience you emotionally?
How did they experience you spiritually?
What did they enjoy most about being with you?
How did they wish you’d been different?
Looking at yourself through the subjective lenses of others is not easy, but most of us already have that information somewhere in our hearts and minds — if we're courageous enough to access it.
In which ways do you agree with this imagined consensus, and in which ways do you see yourself differently? The answers to that will help you understand if you are realistically appraising how you are seen by others.
3. What are the things you fear most in getting close to another person?
Most people believe they know what kind of a partner they want and actively seek those qualities in prospective possibilities. Sadly, when most relationships end, those initial positive qualities are often still intact. What more often causes relationships to die are the fears that arise in each partner as closeness evolves.
Many people are limited by their anticipatory thoughts like:
Most relationships don’t work.
Human beings are basically untrustworthy.
Everyone is out to get as much as he or she can and give as little back as possible.
Once people get to really know you, they won’t find you as lovable.
Thoughts like these can kill a potentially good relationship before it gets off the ground. Write down your fears and how they have played out in past relationships. Recall if you saw those fears realized early in the relationship, but were so attracted to the good things that you didn’t pay attention.
Many people are attracted to combinations of good and potentially destructive traits. Often those diabolically different qualities attract us from our memories of childhood nurturers who treated us similarly, yet we were dependent on them for survival and saw it as the way things are supposed to be.
4. What keeps you from breaking the bonds of your past limitations?
The natural way that people learn about the world begins with the experiences and explorations they had as children. Those adventures are often limited and curtailed by people who impose their own biases and prejudices on what you are allowed to do and feel.
Children take in those limitations without questioning, or even understanding them. Fearful of challenging them, most children blindly accept those limited views of reality and do not believe they are changeable. As adults, they unconsciously limit what they see or feel when they are exposed to similar experiences in their relationships.
Everyone must judge whether or not a new partner will be someone worth pursuing. But if that person is seen through a warped lens of stereotype, bias, prejudice, or condemnation, he or she is not likely to even be considered.
Write down what you’ve been taught to judge as impossible, unlikely, undesirable, or unworthy in another person. Those are your inbred dealbreakers. Then consciously challenge those biases, and ask yourself if you still believe as you were taught. If you allow those internal impressions to hold, no matter the actual truth, you will be unable to break out of your own limited love prison.
5. Are your expectations of yourself and potential partners realistic?
There is a fact of the dating world that many relationship seekers cannot come to understand and accept: You can only be as valuable as the current dating market estimates you to be. It takes courage for anyone to realistically evaluate that formula. Current and realistic social marketability may be a painful concept, but it is a truism that cannot be denied. These “markets” do change over time, in different places, and with different social groups. Certain traits go in and out of style, and availability of matched-quality partners often shifts unpredictably. For example, a woman's age may be a detriment in certain places, but put her in a town with a plethora of unattached men and she will be immediately more valuable without any need to change in any way.
An insecure young man, striving to find his career path, may be unable to compete if the women around him seek someone with a more stable future. Five years later, the women he encounters may be searching for someone who feels passionate about what he does, regardless of how much he earns.
Also, many people are unable to see their own or others' values clearly in whatever market they are currently competing. Your own level of confidence and self-esteem often affects the way you see a potential partner. If you see yourself as lower in value than you are, you may reach out for less than you deserve. Or if you have an unrealistically inflated value, you may reach for someone who will not respond.
Those who are realistic about their marketability are much more likely to succeed in their relationship search. They also know that being authentic about those qualities early on in is more likely to result in a clearer picture of where a relationship is headed.