By Julie H. Case
Disney movies bring us romantic tales of glass slippers and coma-reviving kisses. Hollywood shows us we’ll be so overwhelmed we won’t be able to resist it. Our friends say, “When it’s right, you’ll just know.” And yet, years into a relationship, many men and women haven’t a clue whether they are dating the person they should make their spouse... or just another great someone.
For many of us, falling in love — and deciding that yes, this time it’s meant to last forever — is not as easy as it seems.
It’s easy to get stuck in relationship limbo...
“I always thought I’d have this magical moment where I would meet someone and there’d be this instant clicking and we would literally be married six months later,” says Katja, a D.C.-based program manager for the Department of State while referring to her long-term boyfriend, Rob. “I never, ever thought I’d be the girl that was dating the guy for six years and going nowhere,” she admits.
It’s not that there’s a lot wrong with Rob. Quite the opposite, in fact. “He’s the person I’ve been waiting to meet forever,” Katja says. “We have tons in common; I’ve never gotten bored of him.” And yet, Katja remains seriously into her boyfriend, but maybe not enough to marry him.
So, what keeps so many seemingly smart men and women from deciding that the person they’re with is The One?
1. Your list of “must-haves” for a romantic partner is unattainable
One of the biggest sticking points for people, says counseling psychologist Dr. Linda Young, is having a long list of characteristics that are considered essential for both a partner and the relationship. This lengthy list of essentials can be self-defeating, since it’s unlikely you’ll meet anyone who meets every requirement on that list.
“People have a lot of difficulty accepting a person or a relationship that is good enough,” says Young. By good enough, Young does not mean settling. She means recognizing someone who shares your values and characteristics.
After spending all our 20s and parts of our 30s hearing, “I can have it all!” we can’t help but believe that means the whole pie, perfection à la mode, no compromising. Few potential mates, it seems, can measure up to such standards. Or, more succinctly, a lot of people have become too picky, and too picky has become the standard.
“We expect so much from ourselves at work; we expect a lot from ourselves even recreationally,” says Young. “We rank and rate everything, especially since the Internet has become the norm — and we rank partners, even — without realizing that something can be good enough without being 95 percent of what we want.”
2. You’re unwilling to compromise in relationships
Many of us don’t focus hard enough (or long enough) on what makes a relationship truly satisfying and sustainable over a lifetime. Being more forgiving of a partner’s faults or more flexible about another person’s annoying habits may be difficult, but the ability to compromise matters. Instead, many of us are looking to wherever the grass appears to be greener.
Love, it seems, has torn a page out of the economics textbook. It’s a classic case of maximizers versus satisfiers. Maximizers are always looking for the newest and best thing available. If, one thinks, I stop looking for the best possible option, if I accept this person’s flaws, I won’t have the best partner I could possibly have.
Those are the people who might have trouble committing to anything, says Young, “whether it’s a house, a stereo or a person, because they are constantly looking for ways to tweak it — to make it better.”
On the other hand, the satisfier is someone who recognizes the things that make something — or someone — great, and doesn’t keep looking for something bigger or better.
3. You’re afraid of intimacy
The other challenge for many may be in letting another person in. After spending much of our 20s and early 30s building a career, honoring the idea that it’s important to be successful and dating with the knowledge that most relationships will end, we build up a defense mechanism. When we finally decide we do want to settle down, we have to take down the walls we’ve built up. “One of the ways we protect ourselves is to learn how to not go all in, and then when you want to get married you have to figure out how to go all in,” says Young.
Take, for example, Katja and Rob. Both are incredibly independent people, Katja most of all. That love of independence might be hindering their progression as a couple. “It gets in the way of my relationships sometimes,” Katja says, a twinge of regret cutting through her laugh.
And all that independence can lead to some serious indecision, which is something Laurel from Seattle, WA, knows a thing or two about. Seven years into her relationship, she wondered if her boyfriend was husband material. So, how did Laurel decide that he was The One?
“I spent some time imagining my life without him,” says Laurel, “and I didn’t like it one bit.” Now, eight years into her marriage, the 42-year-old and her husband are trying for a second child.
Deciding you’d rather be with someone than without is a good, realistic place to start. It’s also important to figure out what the few, really critical criteria are in choosing a potential mate — such as religion or a shared culture. In the end, it’s values that matter, not attributes.
4. You pick partners that share your interests, but not your values and goals
Young admits she’s fascinated by online dating profiles, where many people list “important traits” that are actually things they themselves prefer to do: “Must like hiking. Must enjoy ska music. Must love long walks on the beach at sunset.” Young points out that “those things are not very important when it comes down to a long-term, satisfying relationship. The really important stuff is how your basic character traits and personality features complement each other, and where you are similar on the things that matter most to you. You really need to know what your values are before you can know if someone else shares them.”
Shared fundamental values — from the way you express affection, to religion, to how you handle responsibility or are accountable to others — are the most important criteria.
People tend to discount how much these values matter, argues Young. Daters say that honesty is important, but then other things they want — not value, but want — get in the way of making good decisions. If you’re single and you find someone charming, confident and successful, then suddenly the characteristics that make a relationship work come in a distant second.
And, she says, don’t dismiss physical chemistry if you’re looking for the Americanized version of love, which includes a lifetime of romance. Yes, physical attraction can grow over time, but if you have none to begin with it’s not going to manifest itself over time. You can’t construct something out of nothing.
5. You believe there’s only one soul mate out there waiting for you
“I think some people still have this fantasy notion that there’s going to be just one Mr. or Ms. Right. So when they have someone they’ve been with who displays many of these characteristics and they get along just fine together, these daters still think, ‘well, it doesn’t feel magical, like having a soul mate is supposed to feel’,” says Young. “It’s not always going to feel that way.”
But, she argues, by taking a good look at your own place in the world and your values, you can recognize whether you’re dating the person you’re going to stay with long-term — or simply dating around.
Julie H. Case is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Sunset, Alaska Airlines Magazine and Wired.