Therapist Shares The #1 Thing You Should Look For In A Partner — & How Your Boundaries Might Be Getting In The Way Of It

Boundaries are important, but they can also keep you from being open enough for love.

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Most of us have a list of ideal attributes we look for in a partner. But therapist Lori Gottlieb says that a lot of us might just be barking up the wrong tree when it comes to our priorities.

Gottlieb says the number one thing you should look for in a partner is flexibility.

Gottlieb, a therapist and bestselling author of the book "Maybe You Should Talk To Someone," recently appeared on author Mark Manson's podcast "The Subtle Art of Not Giving A [Expletive]," named for the irreverent book of the same name.


The pair's conversation centered on "what everyone gets wrong about therapy," especially as so-called "therapy speak" has taken over the social media zeitgeist and led to some pretty substantial misunderstandings of how mental health actually works.

Gottlieb said one key way this has manifested is how many of us look for a partner — searching out some ideal man or woman who meets our rigid list of likes and dislikes instead of what we should really be looking for.

@iammarkmanson This could determine the strength and longevity of your relationship. Check out the full episode via link in bio. #markmanson #therapy #lorigottlieb #relationships ♬ original sound - Mark Manson

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"The number one quality that predicts whether somebody is going to be a good partner is flexibility," Gottlieb said. "You don't want to be with a rigid partner."

This echoes a recent study of more than 43,000 people on the matter, which found flexibility to be the most important trait for all relationships — romantic or otherwise.


The problem, though, is that when it comes to self-care and mental health trends nowadays, they're all about the opposite of flexibility. "What the mental health stuff out there is saying is be really rigid, be super boundaried," Gottlieb said, and boundaried is synonymous with rigid. 

But Gottlieb, and many other therapists for that matter, said this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what boundaries are.

Therapists say people frequently misunderstand boundaries to mean hard and fast rules for other people's behavior. It's actually the opposite.

As Gottlieb once wrote in The Atlantic, where she writes her "Dear Therapist" column, "boundaries are not about controlling what the other person does or doesn't do." She explained that people frequently think setting boundaries means, "'I tell you this is what I need, and you do it.' So basically, I control your behavior."

But boundaries are actually about your own behavior and how you will respond when a request you've made of another person is not fulfilled. For example, if you've asked your partner not to yell at you when they become upset, the boundary is how you will respond if and when they do yell at you.


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Gottlieb explained this might be leaving the room, continuing the conversation later once tempers aren't running high, or taking a walk to cool down. And if need be, it may even mean ending the relationship if your partner repeatedly refuses to work on their tendency to yell.

But many people nowadays think setting boundaries is instead basically about skipping right to the relationship-ending part — making a rule about no yelling and then enforcing that rule with a zero-tolerance policy that becomes a deal-breaker.


Gottlieb and Manson said these rigid, zero-tolerance rules are what often make people miss out on great partners.

Nobody's perfect, after all, so having unilateral, zero-tolerance policies for potential partners is not a realistic approach. "You can't be rigid if you want to have relationships," Gottlieb said.

Manson agreed, adding he believes "it is kind of suffering through those little obnoxious things about people that ultimately makes you feel closer to them." He cited psychologist Robert Glover, who famously said, "Humans are attracted to each other's rough edges."

Today's enthusiasm for a misunderstood form of boundaries has the potential to close us off to those rough edges, which in turn closes us off to opportunities for growth, both personally and in our relationship.

"If our expectations of people both in friendships and romantic relationships become too inflated," Manson said, "then we're not willing to tolerate any sort of inconvenience or discomfort, and we rob ourselves of the chance of that intimacy."


Or, as therapist Yoland Renteria explained, if we walk away instead of "really trying to understand, to listen, to communicate effectively and non-defensively, to repair, then what we might be doing instead of setting boundaries is really just avoiding."

We can't really have an open heart and mind in a relationship if we know our partner is going to bail the minute we slip up. Flexibility, both in our partners and toward our partners, allows us to stay open to the experiences that help us grow as individuals and as a couple.

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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice, and human interest topics.