The Mr. Right you want to date might not be the one you need long-term. Lori Gottlieb explains.
Until very recently, Valentine's Day often passed with my friends and I sitting around wondering where all the good men were. And then last year, something hit me: maybe they'd been right in front of me. As I looked around at my friends in happy marriages to men who might not knock your socks off at first glance, I started to realize that I'd probably passed up tons of great guys in the past because I had a fixed image of The One in my mind. I said I wanted to be "more open," but out in the dating world, I was still drawn only to my "type."
My list? Oh, puhleeze! I told her I didn't have a list. After all, I wasn't a 16-year-old girl scribbling in my journal. I was a sophisticated 41-year-old woman with several significant relationships under my belt.
"I can't quantify what I'm looking for," I explained. "I always just fell in love."
But my friend was right. When she asked me to write down what I was looking for in a guy, it took me all of three minutes to give a detailed description of more than fifty characteristics I was seeking, with specifics from hobbies to hair color! Even if I'd never written a list, I'd clearly kept a mental file. No wonder it was so hard to find my dream guy — I'd actually dreamed him up.
The problem with a list, I realized, is that it's hard to translate the bullet points into a real, live human being.
The fact is you can't make a list that doesn't either oversimplify or take things out of context. For instance, even if you make a list of qualities you want, they aren't all weighted equally (is height as important as honesty?) and with many qualities you want, it's not like people have them or they don't. Often, they have some degree of that quality — like sense of humor or financial stability — which may not be exactly what you had in mind when you wrote it down.
Lists are also confusing because they're about qualities a man has independently — they don't account for the qualities he'll have inside a relationship. He may be the right age, have the right sense of humor, and have the right job, but what is he going to be like when he's with you? How are you going to feel when you're with him? Will you get along well? None of this can be captured on paper. But still, I told my friend, I have to have some way of screening the men I'd go out with. I mean, I couldn't just go out with everyone, right? And that was the problem.
How did I know if I was being too picky or if the guy just wasn't right for me?
When I asked a dating coach this question, he told me that instead of focusing on my "wants" (my wish list), I should focus on my "needs" (my bottom line) and then see if some of the wants were there.
I told the dating coach about two guys I'd just met online. One was a very attractive divorced dad with two little kids, who was kind and family-oriented but the more time we spent together, the more we struggled to keep the conversation going. I'm an intellectual who's into books and witty banter and he was a laid-back non-reader with a penchant for the Grateful Dead. Then I met a lawyer with the clever humor of Jon Stewart, but he turned out to be emotionally questionable.
"I don't think it's unreasonable to want intellectual stimulation and a devoted dad," I told the dating coach. "I have friends who have husbands like that. It's not impossible to find."
"It's not," he agreed. "And if those two things are absolute needs, then you should look for that. But then you can't go around nixing guys who are devoted dads and intellectually stimulating because they wear pink bow ties. You can't have everything."
He was talking about a third guy I'd seen online. This guy seemed smart and interesting and he was an involved parent, but he wore a pink bow tie in his photo, he was short, and he was nearly bald. Not my type. So the dating coach told me to make a list of "needs" as opposed to my "wants" — and I came up with fourteen things. But here's the catch: I was allowed to have only three.
I was surprised. Only three?
"The difference between 'needs' and 'wants' is crucial," he explained. "If you have fourteen 'needs,' it means that if a guy has thirteen of the fourteen qualities, he's gone! And even if he's most of these things, you have to remember that a lot of good qualities flip over and become bad qualities. Someone highly intelligent and analytical can also be opinionated and a know-it-all. Someone easy-going may have no opinions or be lazy."
He told me about a client of his who'd had her heart broken by a charming but commitment-phobic man. When she was ready to date again, she went online and sifted through her responses. She was excited about one guy who reminded her of her ex. They went out on a date, he said he'd call, and he didn't.
But another guy did. "In her view, he wasn't the most compelling candidate in the bunch," he said, "but he just kept asking her out. Every time my client would go on a date with him, she would have fun. And then she'd complain to me that he wasn't what she was looking for."
He was too short for her. He wasn't rugged enough. But he met her needs: he was thoughtful and reliable, he had the same values as she did, and he shared a similar lifestyle. And when she distinguished between her wants and her needs, she fell in love. She thought she wanted the charming, manly-man guy — and maybe on some level she still wants that — but what she needed was someone fun and thoughtful and reliable who had similar goals and values.
"What you want isn't necessarily good for you," he said. "And in going after the person you think you want, you ignore what you really need."
It's true. After all, sometimes our desires even contradict themselves: I want someone with strong opinions ... who never argues. I want someone who's spontaneous and wild ... who has a stable job.
Needs, on the other hand, go like this:
You want someone creative.
You need someone you can trust.
You want someone who shares your love of jazz.
You need someone who appreciates some of your interests.
You want someone who is athletic and physically active.
You need someone who accepts you even if you let your body go.
Using this as a guideline, I was able to narrow down my list to three essential needs: intellectually curious, kid-friendly, and financially stable.
Obviously, these weren't the only qualities I would be looking for in a partner, but they would be the only basis on which I could rule someone out for a first date. In other words, I couldn't say no to a first date with a guy who wore bow ties, but met these three requirements.
And guess what? Bow-tie guy became my boyfriend. No, he didn't match the mental checklist I'd been carrying around with me. And he wasn't what I used to think of as my type, like the guys I'd always dated in the past (but who, incidentally, never worked out). The great surprise about Bow-tie guy was that he met my three needs and my most important "want": I wanted to be with him.
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