Monday, November 7, 2011

Perfect Partner Narratives



My mother and I frequently talk about relationships and the "wonderful" world of modern dating. Those conversations sometimes influence entire posts I write here, as you'll see when you read the following from the latest on my mother's blog:

I have been single for a long time. Most of the people who are in my life now have never know me to be with someone. People rarely ask me if I am in or out of a relationship, which seems strange to me.

I often tell people that I would rather be alone than with the wrong person. I felt good about not settling, for not being needy and for not being in a relationship for the sake of relationship.

I spent years becoming the person I wanted to attract. Have done a lot of soul searching and clearing of thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that got in the way of being a great partner. I did this because I was attracting all of the wrong men and wanted that to change. I knew that the men I was attracting were reflecting something in me and I didn’t like what I was seeing.

In the beginning this meant being with and embracing my anxiety about being alone. It meant loving who I was even though I had “issues”.

I would love to be in a relationship with someone who was my equal. I have read an embarrassing amount of books on the subject of relationship, and as a therapist I did couples counseling for years. I have become an expert on how it is done and how to be a good partner.

Over time I have come to like my own company and found it easier to be alone and not have to be accountable or compromise. I could wake up in the morning and do what I wanted until I went to sleep and there was no one to tell me other wise. Do you pick up the defiant tone in that sentence?! Now it has become routine. It is how people know me. I am single.


This morning, I have been thinking that for those of us who make great effort at developing self-awareness, and who really flush out what is it we want in an intimate relationship, there might be a different set of blocks on the road of romance. Or perhaps it's similar beliefs being attached to different things.

Consider the idea of the "perfect" partner. A lot folks, when asked about their ideal mate, have a list of particular physical characteristics, set of basic qualities like having a sense of humor or being intelligent, and perhaps something about the person's career or level of income. In addition, many people will have another list (either revealed or in the back of their mind) of similar kinds of deal-breakers. The "I don't want no liars, cheaters, drug users, players, living in mama's basement and smoking pot" type lists.

Now, while I can sympathize with some of these desires, and the struggles that arise from being too attached to those "perfection lists," my experience doesn't really fit much of that. For one, none of that kind of stuff really hooks me. I'm not one of those guys obsessed with Barbie Doll looks, or needing a woman who acts in particularly "feminine" ways, whatever that means. The women I have dated over the year have been diverse in many different ways. In other words, I haven't really had a "type" in the way that term tends to be used in dating circles.

In addition, while I also don't want to date liars, cheaters, drug users, etc., those kinds of lists are mostly baseline filters to me. If someone checks drug user on their online profile, for example, I simply move on. I'm not the kind of person to date someone for months on end who has trouble telling the truth, or who is invested in other patterns of deception. In other words, I don't let "good chemistry" or "lots of commonalities" override red flags in a relationship.

And yet, I do have a perfection narrative that sometimes trips me up. It's just that it's focused on different things. Like good attention skills. Self-awareness. Kindness and compassion. A willingness to buck social/cultural norms when your life is calling you to do so. Passionate about social and environmental justice. Those kinds of things.

Just as the person who really wants a financially "successful" partner can make the mistake of rejecting a great date who isn't quite making it, I have made the mistake of focusing too much on actual or perceived lack of compassion or self-awareness. While the substance is totally different, there are a pair of similarities here.

1. A rush to judgment usually based on a very limited sample of facts. (One or two dates.)

2. A zeroing in on a single area of a person's life, and failing to take in the whole person.

Now, I will say that someone who strongly demonstrates lack of compassion on a date probably won't be attractive to me in numerous other ways. What I'm speaking about here is more about isolated incidents that are extrapolated into totalizing views of a person. You know, like a woman who says something that sounds cruel about a co-worker, and you think "geez, she's a bitch."

Overall, when it comes to lists or images of a perfect partner, I believe people fail to use them as guidelines, instead treating them as absolute, fixed rules. In addition, a lot of us make the mistake of thinking what we want is the same as what we need. Or that what we want in our lives will always be the same.

Many of the qualities I mentioned desiring in a partner today would not have been on my list 10 years ago. I can imagine the same is true for many of you reading out there.

So, what do you think about all of this? How have "perfect partner" lists tripped you up in the past, and/or how do you keep them from tripping you up now?

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