“So, have you been reading anything good lately, son?”
My then-boyfriend’s eyes twinkled. I shoved a Brussels sprout in my mouth and chewed aggressively, hoping that he wouldn’t go there, guessing that he would.
“Well, right now I’m reading something called…what’s it called, Brenna? The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work.”
His dad laughed out loud. I took a large drink of water and forced a smile, while I contemplated kicking him under the table.
His claim that he was “reading” the book was generous; I had lent it to him months before and he had managed to make it through the preface before permanently abandoning it on his bedside table. I’m not sure why he thought it would be appropriate to mention it the first time I was meeting his parents, but I didn’t have to worry about it for long: we broke up soon after that evening.
My upfront strategy potentially saved me several years of tiptoeing around what I wanted and then feeling devastated when it turned out he was less invested than I was.
I realize that it’s a little unusual (some might even say “inadvisable” or “unhinged”) to give a new partner a self-help book with the word “marriage” in the title less than six months into a relationship. Common wisdom dictates that you should avoid this kind of “serious talk” early on, so as to avoid scaring off your new suitor. (This advice is, of course, disproportionately offered to women.)
I believe that this perspective is misguided. I gave him the book as a litmus test; I wanted to assess whether he was serious about the relationship, and scare him off as quickly as possible if he wasn’t in order to avoid wasting time. I was sad when he ended things, but my upfront strategy potentially saved me several years of tiptoeing around what I wanted and then feeling devastated when it turned out he was less invested than I was.
Picking a long-term partner is arguably the most important life decision you’ll ever make. Studies demonstrate that a healthy partner relationship confers myriad benefits, from increased happiness to a longer life span to lower blood pressure and better immune system function. And yet so much common wisdom about what qualities to look for in a partner and how to build a strong relationship are rooted in folk wisdom, foolishness, and patriarchy.
I’ve read over a dozen books written by therapists and relationship experts; in the following blog post, I’ve distilled their research and advice down to a few guidelines for selecting a good partner (and working to be one).
Notice Relationship Patterns
Harville Hendrix, in his bestselling book Getting The Love You Want, argues that we take the most familiar and foundational relationship in our life- the relationship we had with our caregivers in childhood- and use it as a roadmap for forming intimate relationships in adulthood. He explains that we form a composite image of our primary caregivers (mom and dad, in most cases) and use that image (or “Imago” as he calls it) as a template that we hold up against potential partners, looking for someone who “matches”. Individuals whose parents were kind and loving naturally seek and partner with kind and loving people, but those with overbearing, distant, angry, or critical parents also subconsciously seek out partners with those qualities.
By becoming aware of your personal template or “Imago,” either by cataloging your childhood relationship with your primary caregivers or by noticing patterns in the partners you’ve been drawn to in the past, it’s possible to break free of previous negative patterns in whom you’re attracted to.
Focus on What’s Important
Do you have that friend who’s never satisfied with their current partner? Whose last girlfriend wasn’t athletic enough for him, so he started dating a triathlete who he’s not satisfied with because she lacks the intelligence he requires?
In “The Science of Happily Ever After,” author and relationship expert Ty Tashiro argues that we only get three wishes when we choose a partner. According to him, it’s a simple math problem: Let’s say you have a room full of 100 single eligible men, and you’re looking for a partner who is highly intelligent and moderately handsome, with average earning potential. If we assume “highly intelligent” means “in the top 20%”, then we’ve immediately cut our room full of suitors from 100 down to 20. By quantifying “moderately handsome” to mean someone in the top 30% in the attractiveness category, our group of 20 shrinks to 6. And finally, if we’re seeking someone in the top half of earners, our group of 6 becomes 3.
We can’t change the math, Tashiro argues, so instead we need to maximize around the right factors: the ones most likely to lead to a happy and stable union. But which factors are most important? Tashiro makes a plug for three traits found on the Big Five Personality Inventory, namely low levels of neuroticism, high levels of agreeableness and a low desire for novelty.
(Speaking of partner selection and pickiness, comedian Bo Burnham has written a great song on the subject.)
Understand Attachment Styles
Tashiro’s three choices seem sensible, but I also suspect they might have scored so prominently simply because they’ve been studied so much. I would argue that attachment style is actually the most important criteria for choosing a partner, and the one you should put first when crafting your three wishes.
In their book “Attached” authors Levine and Heller argue that adults fall into three basic attachment categories: anxious, secure, and avoidant.
Anxious adults seek closeness and proximity to their partners, while avoidant adults crave autonomy and feel smothered by too much closeness. Secure adults, on the other hand, feel comfortable with closeness but don’t require it. These styles are often gendered, with insecurely attached women more likely to score as anxious, and insecure men more likely to score as avoidant.
To determine your own attachment style, take an online assessment like this one. Regardless of how you score, seek partners who are securely attached for the best chance at a healthy relationship. (How can you discover someone’s attachment style? You can take a leaf out of my book and ask them to take a test and send you the results, (yes, I actually did this) or, if that’s not your style, you can casually assess them by listening to them talk about their past relationships.) If you score as anxious, be careful to avoid (no pun intended) the trap of getting involved with an avoidantly attached person, and vice versa. The two styles have opposing needs and desires, and while I’ve heard it’s possible to cultivate a successful anxious/avoidant partnership, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it happen.
If you’re insecurely attached and you want to move toward secure attachment, know that it’s possible. While working with a trusted therapist can help you positively shift your attachment style, the easiest way to become secure is to engage in a relationship with another securely attached person. To cultivate a more secure attachment bond in your current relationship, check out the book “Hold Me Tight” by Sue Johnson.
Watch Out For Warning Signs
Renowned relationship researcher John Gottman brings couples to his “Love Lab” to study their relationships, and he can predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple will eventually divorce after listening to just 5 minutes of their conversation.
How does he do it? Among other variables, Gottman codes the conversations for what he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” namely Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt. (“Stonewalling” is when one partner shuts down, tunes out, or otherwise disengages; men are significantly more likely to do this than women.)
If you find that a new partner regularly employs these “techniques” during conflict, proceed with caution.
Another one of Gottman’s major findings centers around the ability of the male partner in a relationship to allow himself to be influenced. He discovered that when men are incapable of accepting influence from their female partners, there is an 81% chance that their marriage will end in divorce. (His research suggests that women don’t struggle to accept influence the same way that many men do, which is no surprise, considering how women are socialized from a young age to be agreeable and take the needs of others into account.)
Speaking of which…
A Note For Men About Relationships, Gender and Patriarchy
Relationships aren’t some kind of magical safe haven from the oppression and patriarchy that women face every day in the world. Even if you’re a man who considers yourself a feminist, even if you’ve read some bell hooks or Betty Friedan, the odds are good that in small or large ways, you perpetuate sexist patterns in your relationships with women. (It would be difficult not to; the scourge of gender inequality permeates all of our lives from infancy, where girls are taught to be helpful and accommodating, to not speak too loudly or take up too much space, while boys are rewarded for their opinions and encouraged to use their bodies to their fullest extent.)
Don’t engage in a theoretical debate that can never be purely theoretical for her “just to play devil’s advocate.”
A friend put it like this:
“I think patriarchal thinking and practices are so omnipresent that no partnership is entirely free of them. It’s just…not an escapable thing, unless both of you were raised by matriarchal hyenas on a never-before-discovered island off southern Africa, and immigrated to the US in your late twenties. Like racism, it’s too ingrained in the fabric of social relations, too integrated into our institutions, to be magically disappeared from our lives, no matter how much we might want to.”
“I’ve mostly dated men who’ve self-identified as feminists, and the self-advertising rarely matches their lived realities. They talked over me. They admired Kerouac and Bukowski and Marquez and waved away feminist critiques. They didn’t cook, and embraced a comfortable amusement at their own inability to cook. They were jealous, or protective. They were a hundred tiny things so average and unremarkable that I could never point them out and say, ‘See how this makes me less-than? See how you’re telling a story and you’re the knight and I’m the princess and I never get to slay the dragon?’”
Acknowledging and working to correct your contribution to unequal relationship patterns is your responsibility as a man.
First, if your female partner tells you about a way in which she is experiencing sexism, in your relationship or in the world, listen to her and believe her. Don’t engage in a theoretical debate that can never be purely theoretical for her “just to play devil’s advocate.” Don’t demand that she provide studies or statistics to prove her point. (Look them up yourself later if you’re really interested; they’re probably out there.)
Educate yourself about the concept of emotional labor and recognize that women do the majority of this difficult work in relationships. Pay attention to how your partner is expending emotional labor for you, and work to correct the imbalance if there is one. (Hint: there almost definitely is one.)
Understand and practice good consent principles around sex, even if you’re in a long term relationship; value a “no” in response to the act of sex or to a particular sex act in the same way you would value a “yes.” Don’t plead, guilt, bully, or cajole your partner into sex; create an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable saying no.
Finally, if you’re cohabitating with a partner, recognize that statistically, women still do more housework than men, and that men also overestimate the amount of housework they’re doing. Don’t wait for your partner to ask you to do more housework: it’s your responsibility to share work equally, and women have been socialized all their lives to view demanding help as rude and overbearing.
You may not even realize all the ways in which your female partner takes care of your shared living space; ask her to make you a list if you’re curious, but more importantly, grab a toilet brush and work to correct the imbalance that almost certainly exists.