Lose the Checklist, Find Love

Love, Heartbreak

Don't assume you know exactly who you want before you've met them.

All right, let's talk about your dating checklist. You know the one I mean—that lengthy list of attributes that you want or even demand from any prospective partner:

  1. Tall
  2. Slim
  3. Good-looking
  4. Loves dogs
  5. Makes good money
  6. Dresses well
  7. Between X and Y years old
  8. Etc.

There are several problems with this sort of list. One is that, with each item, you're essentially making a generalization that disqualifies lots of very qualified partners, one of whom might have been terrific and given you a lifetime of happiness.

You're looking for a guy, and he must be tall? You're saying that you're not attracted to short guys, but think that through.

I'm willing to bet that there's some short guy out there who you'd be wildly attracted to once you got to know him and figured out how cool he is.

You're looking for a woman, and she must be shorter than you? Same argument.

One of my clients is quite short, a little under five feet tall, yet she thought she wanted a guy who was at least 5'10". I talked her through this a bit.

It developed that she had a co-worker who was much shorter than 5’10”, but she found him incredibly hot. He was married, but if he were single, she'd go out with him like a shot.

Once I'd gotten her to think it through, she scratched that rule.

Let's consider the case of Alexis. When she was in graduate school at the University of Washington, most of her colleagues were from somewhere far away.

Given their proximity to each other and the demands of their work, they became a default social group. The gang would all convene at happy hour after their Wednesday graduate seminar.

Alexis became friends with all of them, but felt especially drawn to Kieran. The two of them hit it off right away, and soon she felt close to him. 

Just one problem: Alexis is 5'9", and Kieran is 5'4". She simply couldn't imagine them being together as a couple. She thought the option just wasn't available to her.

She knew he was a great guy, though, and even went as far as suggesting to her (shorter) roommate Wanda that maybe she should go out with Kieran. Wanda wasn't blind, though, and said "Maybe you should."

Alexis reiterated her mantra, "That wouldn't work. He's shorter than me."

Fortunately, Kieran didn't feel limited by his height. He knew that he and Alexis were great together.

He kept that option open, and let Alexis know that he wanted more than just friendship. She kept putting him off, until one weekend when the gang went camping up at the Paradise campground on Mount Rainier.

Maybe it was the activity, maybe it was the thinner air, maybe it was a little bit of alcohol that they'd brought along. Whatever it was, Alexis suddenly felt the possibility too.

As they sat together alongside a stream, she felt closer to him than ever. So she got closer still and kissed him and then kissed him some more. It just so happened that they had a tent handy.

Down came the barriers, and they officially started seeing each other.

One barrier still stood, however; her parents objected, simply on the basis that they looked wrong together, and they imagined it would be hard for their little girl to overcome societal expectations about height.

Their reaction was what was actually hard for Alexis, who considers herself something of a people-pleaser and had always tried to make her parents happy. But by this time she'd spent a lot of time with Kieran, and understood the unimportance of their relative height, saying, "It didn't matter in bed and it didn't matter in life."

Her parents eventually saw how happy she was and got over their initial reservations.

Alexis notes that height discrimination, especially vis-à-vis couples, is one of the few remaining prejudices that are socially sanctioned; people carry without question the expectation that the man will be taller than the woman.

Others might look at them with surprise, and might think they're "wrong" for each other, but it doesn't feel like an issue to them at all.

Mark Twain once said that "All generalizations are false, including this one." He meant that they're flawed and therefore dangerous, but they're occasionally useful nevertheless.

Most of the items on your checklist encapsulate some truth, or at least an individual experience, but they typically narrow your view in ways that aren't helpful and can lead you to rule out good potential partners for bad reasons, which can lead you to being pretty lonely.

Our friend Elise told me a story of a friend of hers who in her 20s had a list of ten "C's": Considerate, Cash, Catholic—she didn’t remember the rest. Maybe cute, courageous, whatever.

If you think about it, you can see that every one of those criteria narrows down the list of candidates. By the time you're through 10 (or more) requirements, you'll be left with very few potential soul-mates.

If you don't cross paths with any of those very few, or if they turn out not to be right for you despite meeting all your criteria, then what? You're out of luck over stupid stuff.

Let's take a couple of those C's. Cash? How about someone who doesn't have much but also doesn't spend much, and is smart, funny, kind, and completely adores you? And makes your life better in all kinds of ways, apart from buying you stuff. Is that all bad?

Catholic? Was that really entirely necessary for her? Maybe, I guess, but I'm thinking the vast majority of people could make it work with somebody outside their denomination.

What did this item on her checklist really mean? Was it about raising their kids in her denomination? Was it about a moral tradition? Or was it simply a desire to have someone with a similar background?

Think through whether you couldn't be happy with someone who has slightly different beliefs from yours.

The point is, rigidity doesn't serve you. If you insist on a list and an incredible person comes along who doesn't quite meet one of your criteria, you might pass them by. Do you really want to pass them over and instead pick someone who is fractionally hotter or has a better resume, but is otherwise not a good fit for you?

Our friend Alexandra set up two of her friends, Lara and Ben. They were two legal nerds with similar backgrounds who seemed perfectly matched in lots of conventional checklist ways.

So Alexandra was shocked when Lara told her that she wouldn't accept a second date with Ben because he drove too fast. She said, "I'm not going to marry someone who will probably be killed in a flaming wreck."

Instead, she ended up marrying someone who observed the speed limit more conscientiously. She later discovered that he really wasn't a nice person, and she divorced him. She might have missed out on a great opportunity for a lousy reason.

So it's not just about passing up the right one because of your checklist; there's also the danger that the checklist will lead you to the wrong one.

You can follow your list faithfully, and you might be unable to resist the temptation of someone who checks all the right boxes, whether or not they're the right person for you.

Katrina found Randall, an actor with everything she wanted in a guy: he was physically attractive, outgoing, funny, flamboyant, and had tons of personality. She was more than happy to sign up for all of that and moved in with him.

She didn't read the fine print, though. He was self-absorbed. He perhaps took his dramas too seriously, because he wanted life to be like a Hollywood movie, and was bitterly disappointed whenever it fell short.

His disappointment affected his world view, and it affected their relationship.

Katrina wanted out. He wasn't the right man for her, regardless of how well he matched her checklist.

A few criteria that real people have used to disqualify potential partners:

  • "Guys with beards have something to hide."
  • "I won't date anyone who wears blood-red nail polish."
  • "Have you seen his shoes??"
  • And my all-time favorite: "If I open the car door for her, and she doesn't reach over to open the other door for me, I cross her off the list."

Fill in your favorites. There are a million more.

People are sometimes naïve about their expectations for their partners. You might not be immune.

So take a little time and think about what’s on your list, and which of those things could maybe come off.

OK, here's an exercise for you: Make up a checklist of all the attributes your dream lover would have. Put a star next to each of the attributes that are non-negotiable.

As you continue through this book, revisit your list and consider whether you really need those attributes that don't have stars next to them. The ones that are needlessly restricting your choices.

And keep an eye on the starred items, too, and see whether you can do without any of them. Your results may vary, but there's a pretty good chance that you'll be able to live without some of them.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book "The Last Place You Look."

Jim McCoy is a life coach, and one of his specialties is dating. If you’d like help navigating your love life, contact Jim through his website at merlincoaching.com for a free consultation.