As the season for summer flings winds down and people start to make choices about whom to date more seriously, I want to share my thoughts on common mistakes people make when dating and my recommendations for how to make wise choices about romantic relationships.
I have had countless conversations with girlfriends about our dating lives. We talk about what the latest person (or people) we are dating are doing. What we hope potential partnerships will be like, what we hope they will look like, the amount of money we hope they will make, etc. Recently, I’ve begun to think that we are not focusing on the most important things during these conversations. My experience as a couples therapist has helped me to understand that many people have good intentions but are unaware of important building blocks for strong, healthy, long-lasting relationships. I think a lot of us date in ways that do not help us to understand whether the people we are dating will be good long term partners for us. Essentially, I think we focus on the wrong things, which leads us to make mistakes when dating.
This new understanding has been emphasized by my current, healthy relationship. I have realized that I was accepting or tolerating dynamics in previous relationships that were not healthy and probably would not have changed. This was in part because I was not paying attention to the most important things.
Below, I highlight common dating mistakes people make and what you should do instead. This list post is intended to help you think critically about how you’ve been engaging in dating and who you’ve been choosing to date, particularly if you are interested in finding a life partner.
- Too much focus on the external
Being attracted to your romantic partner is essential; I always say that if you don’t like looking at someone’s face, a relationship with that person probably won’t work out. With that said, I think that we tend to focus too heavily on the external appearance, resume, and educational attainment of potential partners. We usually focus on we would like partners to look and dress like, we know what degrees and career we want them to have, and what we want their salary to be. While some of these things may be pointers to more important factors for a healthy relationship (e.g. hygiene, interest in learning, work ethic, and financial stability), it is not always true that you can build a healthy relationship with someone who meets this external criteria.
Solution: Focus on the internal
I encourage you to spend more time getting a sense of internal characteristics of potential partners. What is the character of the person that you’re dating? Character can be assumed from external factors but time and time again we hear stories of people who looked the part but turned out to demonstrate poor character in their relationships. Character relates to how people carry themselves, character is something that people show you through their behavior over time.
Things to look for:
- Does the person you’re dating do what they say they are going to do?
- Do they show up when they say they will? Do they follow through on commitments?
- Is the person honest?
- Is the person honest with you about things that are large and small?
- Do you trust the person?
- If you are wary of your potential partner’s decision-making this should be a yellow flag
- Does this person show you support when you have a hard time?
- When you call the person you’re dating for comfort or a listening ear, are they willing to provide that?
- Is the person respectful to you and other people?
- Does your potential partner show respect to your body, time, space, belongings, and opinions? Does the person treat other people in their life respect? If someone is disrespectful to their family members, exes, and/or service providers, that is not a good sign.
2. Too much focus on chemistry and passion
Whether it’s all of the fairy tales we watched as children or the romantic comedies we absorbed as teenagers and adults, many of us believe that our “feelings” for a person are the most important aspect of a relationship. We have come to believe that if two people feel strongly enough about each other they must be soul mates, meant to be together forever. Chemistry is an important component of relationships but chemistry and passion are not sufficient for a successful relationship. Feelings of lust and passion may pull you to stay in a relationship past its expiration date. Additionally, my personal and clinical experience have shown me that the most intense and passionate relationships usually somewhat volatile with really high highs and really low lows.
Solution: Focus on the health of the relationship overall
Every relationship will have challenges at some point but they should not be pervasive. Take active steps to be a healthy partner and address problems as they arise. Take stock of how you are feeling about the relationship and how you are engaging as a partner periodically and check in with your partner as appropriate.
Questions to ask yourself:
- What happens in the relationship when we have a disagreement? Do we argue aggressively or constructively? Are we able to resolve problems effectively?
- How much time do we spend in conflict?
- Am I being honest about my relationship wants and needs with my partner/potential partner?
- Do we communicate constructively and calmly with each other?
- Make calm requests instead of accusatory complaints (e.g. I’m hoping that we can spend at least one night together every weekend. vs. You never make time for me, you must not really like me).
For more suggestions on this topic check out this post on 3 Healthy Ways to Engage in Dating.
3. Too much focus on the future
Many people have a hard time finding people to date, which can lead us to get caught up in focusing on how to keep a relationship alive so that we can get married and have children. Additionally, the attachment that we develop to a person over time and our fantasies about how good a relationship could be in the future can blind us to significant issues present in a relationship. This can lead us bend over backwards to keep a relationship going without addressing problems that arise. Also, when we spend our time focusing on what it will be like to get engaged, get married, have children, we can miss the opportunity to enjoy the relationship dynamics in the present and determine if the person we are dating is really a good match for us.
Solution: Focus on the relationship as it is right now
Looking back on some previous relationships I realize that I didn’t fully enjoy the company of my then-boyfriends. I liked them okay but we often weren’t engaging in the types of discussions I enjoyed or things were often tense for one reason or another. In the relationships where I did enjoy the company of my boyfriends, this was often inconsistent, with some times being a lot of fun and other times being frustrating and upsetting. All couples have tense moments at times but this should not be pervasive. When you are dating, I encourage you to really think about whether you enjoy spending time with potential partners. Pay attention to your experience in the moment and notice whether or not you’re engaged, having fun, etc.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Do you enjoy spending time with your partner even when other people and alcohol aren’t present? When you’re not engaged sexually/physically?
- Do you and your partner have shared interests and things you enjoy doing together?
- Are you comfortable being yourself with this person?
- Are you happy with the relationship as it is right now?