I first suspected that I had chosen the wrong partner when Pam hurled my BlackBerry across the room, shattering the screen on our metal bed frame. Seconds later—when she crossed to the kitchen, poured and chugged a glass of spiced rum, then smashed the bottle to the ground—she had me convinced. I was in the wrong relationship.
Our mismatch was obvious not just to our friends and family but even to us. Still, we loved each other too much to let go. Although love is the No. 1 prerequisite for a fruitful partnership, four years together helped me realize that love is not “all you need.” Despite our crazy love, our differences were killing us.
I regret nothing about my time with Pam and we stayed on good terms, but now that I’m in a thrilling marriage based on a solid foundation, I’ve learned that there are some fundamental traits—non-negotiables—that make for a healthy love match. Let’s dive in and start learning from my lifetime of hilarious missteps and lucky breaks.
What to Look for in a Partner
“Marriage resembles a pair of shears, so joined that they cannot be separated; often moving in opposite directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes between them.”
Pam and I lived on the fence between joy and misery throughout our four years together. Our values didn’t line up, and we clashed on religion, kids, where to live, how to spend money and whose turn it was to buy wine.
When we parted, I resolved that in my next relationship I would find all the things that were missing and set some non-negotiables. My new wife and I still have our challenges, but I realized that these things make her a perfect partner in my eyes:
1. Shared values – Are yours in line with your partner’s? If treating others with kindness is important to you, but your partner is constantly trash-talking people, this is a burning red flag. My wife and I actually sat down and wrote out our “relationship values,” a list of qualities we both wanted to manifest, daily. Take the time to have the big conversations about your life philosophies and goals, but leave space to disagree on things that don’t matter.
2. Shared interests – Your hobbies don’t need to match perfectly, but if you share little to nothing in common with your mate, what will sustain this relationship when the honeymoon phase is over? Doing things you enjoy together can create excitement and help you through the tough times. My wife talked about books on our first date, and for a word fanatic like me, I nearly proposed on the spot. If you struggle to list your common passions, don’t fret. You can start something new together: lawn darts, rescue diving, skeet shooting. You pick.
3. Honesty – What’s the best way to spot a partner who’ll bring you a lifetime of grief? They lie. Lying points to low self-esteem, an ego out of control or sociopathic tendencies. Healthy relationships can’t survive without trust, and lying destroys it. Think your partner only lies to others but not you? Maybe, but would you bet your next 30 years on it? Full honesty from your partner lets you know you are respected, valued and that she has the guts to address the challenges in your relationship head on, instead of letting problems fester.
4. Independence – When you first meet that perfect person, you want to spend every minute with them, all the time, forever and ever, amen. Don’t do it! Your partner fell in love with the interesting, complex human that you are. When we spend every possible minute with our partner, we lose our independence, and frankly become a snooze. We repeat the same familiar stories, get into mundane routines and bring no new energy. Maintain a life outside your relationship and you’ll keep it electric.
5. FUN! – What’s the point of sharing your life with someone if they don’t add joy and excitement to it? When I met my now wife five years ago, we both noticed how free and light it was, being together. There was much falling-down-laughing. We loved our adventures and became best friends. If you’re having fun, this is a clear sign that you’ve chosen well.
Change Yourself Before You Change Your Lover
“The so-called ‘meaning of life’ opened up before me. It turned out to be infinitely simple—give love and seek no reward.”
Being choosy about a mate is important, but the best way to attract that special guy or girl is to work on yourself first. The dating world is full of people with long, inflexible lists of must-haves, who are ready to nix an opportunity because someone mispronounced “niche” but who are themselves no great prize. Yep, I said it!
Here are some traits you can cultivate before telling yourself there are no good men or women out there:
1. Patience – After planning a wedding for six months, my wife and I decided to renovate our house, stage it, rent it out, then move all of our furniture, quit our jobs, pack and drive to Mexico for six months, all while running a business. Stressful does not begin to describe my burden. For a while, it was easy to lose my cool, but I’ve been working hard to mindfully pause before I speak, even for five seconds. When I do, I can almost always avoid a pointless conflict.
2. The ability to let go – My ex-partner and I would constantly pull fight themes from the same box of grievances. “Remember when you said this?” or “failed to do that?” The grievances were legitimate, but rehashing them only fuelled resentment. When I met my wife, I noticed how easily she moved past dumb things I did. I tried her approach, too, and found that letting go of past hurts is liberating—and can make your partner fall in love with you even more. Try it out.
3. Generosity – When I asked my uncle Rob, who’s been married to my aunt for around 20 years, what’s the secret of a great relationship, he told me, “Be more generous than you need to be.” Sure, it may not be your turn to wash the dishes or feed the fish, or maybe you feel you don’t need to be rational because she’s not. But if you invest more kindness into the relationship than what seems fair, you’ll score massive love points.
4. Self-respect – You teach people how to treat you (thanks, Oprah). In my last relationship, I tolerated inappropriate flirting and let my voice get smothered. Sacrificing who you are for another is great fertilizer for resentment. Single again, I rebuilt my self-image and set minimum standards for how I would be treated in my next relationship. When you finally love yourself like you should, you’ll get the love you want from others.
5. Trust – If you’ve been in a relationship, chances are you’re no stranger to pain. Love is joy until your partner disappoints your ego. It only takes one sting to make you gun-shy. If you’ve been stung lots, it’s easy to stop trusting. Take time to heal, but get over that fast, and realize that your new relationship is not the old one. Your new partner deserves your full trust; it’s the only way you can truly love each other.
Watch Out for False Positives
Many situations look like love but sour after a while, often around the two-year mark. Why? Well, in the beginning, you’re drinking from the fire hose of hormonal bliss, and both sides are on their best behavior. These three things are often part of an astronomical relationship but don’t create one on their own:
1. Great intimacy – Who doesn’t love the physical stuff? A relationship without a healthy intimate connection can start to feel like a roommate situation, but even great one-on-one chemistry is a poor foundation for a long-term relationship.
2. Stars in your eyes – “Oh my God, I met this guy and he’s perfect, we talked for 17 hours last night and he just shares my vibe, ya know?” The getting-to-know-you phase is always magic. Everything your partner is and does is perfection, and he can do no wrong. There’s no reason not to enjoy it to the max, but just know that it’s not always like this. Eventually his whistling will cease to be cute. Don’t let infatuation blind you to his or her true character.
3. All check boxes ticked – She’s popular, successful, wealthy, the right religion/political party or some mix of the above. Great on paper doesn’t always translate into a love for the ages. Attraction doesn’t come from a list, and you should not be surprised to find out that your perfect-on-paper guy or girl doesn’t match up to someone you never saw coming.
Relationships grow and die for infinite reasons. Each one is its own unique journey, so don’t turn down potential adventures because you’re waiting for your one and only soul mate. It’s a sad Hollywood fantasy to think there’s only one person out there for you, anyway.
Having good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from making mistakes, so don’t be afraid to open your heart even if you find out one day you need to say goodbye. Go in with open eyes and leave the other person better than you found them. Life is an adventure, go love and live.