One thing I have noticed in working on intimacy with heterosexual, gay, lesbian and bisexual adults is that the selection of their partners or lovers can be very crucial to the success of their relationships. People often choose based on immediately apparent criteria like looks, money, sexual chemistry, or convenience. Later, after they’ve engaged in sex or had children with the person, they start to have buyer’s remorse.
have heard people say things like, “Now that we have a baby together I feel stuck with this person,” or, “Now that we’ve had sex it’s harder to break up because I know how good it can be.” While the choices those people made gave them immediate gratification, they often did not consider how well they knew their partners before letting them into their lives and hearts. Let me propose some other criteria to consider when choosing an intimate partner.
Here are five basic questions to ask yourself about your potential lover or mate:
1. What are the person’s values? Do you share those values with them? Obviously, for a one night stand this is not as crucial to find out as with someone you plan to have a longer-term relationship. But even for a brief affair, is this person honest with you about safer sex and STD history? Do they communicate their values clearly with you? Can you trust letting them in your home? Do they have to be drunk or drugged to be with you, or you with them? How does that change the quality of your sexual/intimate experience? Does the person want monogamy or do they want a different arrangement, like a polyamorous or casual relationship structure? Are you culturally or spiritually similar to the person, and does that matter to you? For some people, culture is a very important factor, and can determine whether or not to marry or have children with that person. Values are always at issue, whether we pay attention to them or not.
2. Do the person’s lifestyle choices mesh well with yours? This may be a more important consideration for longer-term relationships. Are you a saver and is s/he a spender? Do you want children and the other person doesn’t? Do they smoke, drink, use drugs, eat meat, eat vegetarian, or clean up after themselves? Do you? Are their habits compatible with what you want to be around? What are the possible consequences of living with someone who doesn’t share similar lifestyle choices? You don’t need to find out all these things immediately, but it’s good to know if you plan to move in together or marry.
3. How much are you willing to change for another person? What do you expect to be able to change in them? It’s important to acknowledge and anticipate that you will need to change some things in order to compromise and get along, but some things you might regret being “flexible” about. If it violates an aspect of your life that means a great deal to you or a core value, you might want to reconsider changing for the other person. Who does most of the changing, and who does most of the asking? If you meet a person with a fundamental flaw that you can’t seem to tolerate, chances are it will not get better on its own, without that person’s sincere desire to change. If s/he does not see this as a flaw or want to change, what will you do then?
4. How do you communicate with the person? How do you prefer to communicate? Some people like to have heated discussions and don’t mind getting argumentative with the other person. They want to discuss things as they come up and not let them fester like an untreated sore. At the other end of the spectrum are people who like to resolve things by “letting it go” but not directly expressing their disagreement or frustration with the other person. I have seen people give up on a basically good relationship because they believed that they should not have to tell the other person what’s bothering them – the partner was supposed to just “know”.
The quantity and quality of communication is something that many couples seek professional help for because it’s so easy to let dysfunctional patterns we learned from our parents slip into our current relationships. It’s important to figure out what feels comfortable to you and see if it matches up with the other person’s style or preferences.
5. What’s your timeline? Some people feel comfortable getting physically intimate fast but not emotionally, and others feel the opposite. If you feel pressure to get intimate too fast or you feel rejected by the other person because they are not as interested as you are, it’s important to acknowledge and express these feelings. Some people find it hard to communicate about the amount of space you need and what you want to have happen (or not happen) in the relationship.
Often people have difficulty modulating how soft or hard their boundary messages should be. So they either alienate people unnecessarily with messages that are too hard, or find their boundaries being violated repeatedly until they discover how to protect themselves better. It takes practice, but there is hope for improvement with work.
Choosing one’s partner well is not the only important factor in making a relationship work, but paying attention to these factors can make a big difference in how much pleasure you get out of your relationships. Staying with someone for longer than a day or two requires a certain amount of hard work, especially if you want to have a healthy, honest relationship that leads to deeper levels of intimacy and satisfaction. Knowing the person you’re involved with seems like a main ingredient in the mix, as does commitment to discussing differences and accepting the person for who he or she is.