Dear Therapist: What do I look for in a potential partner?
Dear Therapist: I’ve started dating again after a bad breakup. I’ve made poor choices in the past when it comes to romantic relationships and I need guidance about what to work on in myself or look for in a potential partner so that I don’t end up in the same unhealthy pattern again and again.
Dear Looking For Healthy Love: While there are probably a lot of different things you’ll need to work on and consider as you start dating again, one great skill to focus on in yourself and in a potential partner is compassion.
The core of compassion is the kindhearted recognition of the shared challenges of being alive. I struggle, you struggle, we all struggle. I suffer, you suffer, we all suffer. I have limitations, you have limitations, we all have limitations. I fail and make mistakes, you fail and make mistakes, we all fail and make mistakes. From this core of shared vulnerability, compassion then drives us to actively care for ourselves and others in order to reduce suffering.
While compassion itself isn’t enough for a romantic match – you will likely want other qualities like chemistry and compatibility – compassion is foundational for a healthy relationship. Compassion allows us to feel safe to be seen for who we are and allows others to feel safe to show us who they are. Compassion allows us to accept what is true about ourselves and others rather than denying what’s true for fear of judgment.
Compassion also allows us to look beyond our own negative interpretations of another person’s behaviors (they are a jerk, they are controlling, they are selfish) and seek to understand those behaviors from the vantage point of the other person in the context of their needs and vulnerabilities. That doesn’t mean erasing the impact of someone else’s behaviors or the impact of your own behaviors. Compassion means facing the truth of these impacts, taking ownership for them, and actively exploring ways to reduce suffering in the relationship – for both of you. Instead of the non-productive and damaging conflict that occurs when partners feel judged, misunderstood and unsupported, mutual compassion creates a calm and open space for caring and creative conflict resolution.
You can practice compassion any time you notice yourself being critical of yourself or someone else. If you find yourself being self-critical when you think about your ‘poor choices’ in past relationships, for example, you can add the lens of compassion: ‘I didn’t have any healthy role models for relationships so it makes sense I’ve struggled’. Or if you notice yourself being critical or judgemental of a friend when they aren’t making good choices, you can remember ‘life is complicated and humans struggle to make good choices, even when they are intelligent and capable people.’
When dating or looking at profiles online, it might not be clear at first whether the person has compassion. You can observe over time, however, and look for clues. If the food takes an unreasonable amount of time to come out at a restaurant, are they mean to the server or
frustrated but understanding? Do they talk about other people’s mistakes or struggles with kindness or with unforgiving contempt? If you ask them to slow down when they are driving because you get anxious in the car, are they kind to you and drive more slowly or do they criticize you for being anxious?
Compassion is an ongoing practice. If you or a potential partner have moments of being judgmental or critical, it doesn’t mean you aren’t compassionate. As compassion tells us, it’s never about being ‘perfect’, since that’s impossible. It’s about having an intention and interest in developing kindness for our shared human vulnerabilities and building relationships that respect and care for us in all of our messy imperfections.
Danielle B. Grossman, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, has worked with clients in the Truckee/Tahoe community for 20 years. She helps individuals and couples with their relationships, anxiety, grief, struggles with food and addiction. Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or learn more at truckeecounseling.com.
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