When you work in ministry, psychology, and teach at the university level, you get asked some interesting questions. One of these interesting questions I’m often asked is, “Do you think I’m dating the right person?” People want some assurance they’re not wasting their time with someone who in the end will just not be right for them. That’s quite a question to be asked and I’m humbled people think I can provide a wise answer. While I’m certainly not in the matchmaking business, I’ve studied a great deal about human behavior so I can provide some basics to guide the continued assessment of a suitor’s eligibility. Psychology has a great deal to say about why people come together and why some stay together, but there’s no guarantee what I tell anyone provides 100% assurance everything will work out. That’s why getting married requires faith! It’s trusting oneself to the other and hoping God will give each of you the grace to maintain the relationship in a healthy loving way. Having said all of that, let me share some thoughts on what may help you know the person you’re with is right for you.
My first piece of advice is ask yourself this simple question: “Is the person I’m interested in a loving person.” Before you answer appreciate the fact this question is complex because along with asking if your significant other is a loving person you have to know how he or she communicates love as well. If your partner communicates love in a way you don’t understand, he or she may be loving but you’re just not picking up on it. I wrote about how to be a more loving person on my blog here so it might be good to read it and ask yourself whether or not the person you’re thinking about spending your life with exhibits these characteristics. Ask yourself if he or she empathizes with you when things are tough, gives you the benefit of the doubt when you do things he or she doesn’t understand or disagrees with. Is your partner a forgiving person, someone invested in your life and the lives of other people, and finally does he or she encourage and challenge you to be a better person. You know you’re loved when you feel supported, that your success matters to the one you’re in a relationship with, and that you matter as well. You may be in a relationship with someone who displays all of these characteristic but you might not know it simply because they haven’t communicated it in a way you understand. Get to know how your partner communicates these things and invest in understanding their language of love. Likewise, teach them to understand yours. In the end, if the two of you cannot communicate love to one another just being a loving person is not enough. You have to be able to communicate love and sometimes even good intended people can’t do that. It’s important you marry someone who is loving and communicates love to you in a way you understand.
The next thing to ask yourself about your relationship is how well you fight with one another. I know, I’m asking you to think about something negative and you want to focus on the positives. The truth is you’re probably going to fight with someone you marry for the rest of your life. The fact you fight is a sign you’re invested in one another, and that’s a very good thing to be! The key is learning to fight in a way that’s productive and not destructive. John Gottman is a well known social scientist who did a great deal of work studying why some marriages last and others fall apart. He can predict with 90% accuracy whether or not a couple will divorce just by watching them interact with one another One thing he believes very important for keeping a couple together is how well they fight. He suggests couples avoid the following when arguing or fighting:
- Making excuses for the problem and being defensive.
- Placing responsibility on the partner to make things better instead of thinking about how you can contribute to the solution.
- Trying to read the other person’s mind and attributing blameworthy thoughts to him or her.
- Being stubborn and contemptuous toward one another.
- Being a whiner and complainer.
Healthy fighting is key for solving problems, learning to compromise, and releasing anger and frustration instead of letting it build up. Couples need to discover how to fight and each couple does so differently. The key is to do so in a helpful way that gets the problem resolved and doesn’t perpetuate the issue. Another aspect of Dr. Gottman’s research is his finding that successful couples have more positive interactions with one another than negative. He found couples need to have five times as many positive interactions than negative interactions. This 5:1 ratio keeps couples moving forward and stops them from having only negative encounters with one another. So, as you think about whether or not you’re with the right person ask yourself how well the two of you fight and whether or not you have more positive experiences together than negatives. Fighting is important but so is making up!
A third thing to think about is whether or not the two of you share what I call “Transcendent Values.”. Do you both value things that transcend merely surviving every day together? So many couples fight over money, sex, in-laws, and kids, but it’s usually not these things in and of themselves that matter, it’s the transcendent values behind them. Sex isn’t usually about simply feeling good biologically (Although for some it might be), usually it’s one way people show love. A couple may value deep companionate love but one of them shows it primarily by being available to the other for counsel, working on the house together, and just sharing a meal at a restaurant, while the other primarily feels loved when they’re sexually intimate. The problem isn’t sex (although it might be something you need to communicate about with your partner) it’s the fact you’ve not identified the common transcendent value of companionate love and friendship to one another nor have you discussed how to express and live out that value as a couple. What do you value? What does your future spouse value? Do you value religion, friendship, security, adventure, romance, community service, or something else at the core of who you are? Does the person you want to spend the rest of your life with value these things as well or at least support you in pursuing these values? It’s very important to identify what these are and see how your significant other resonates with them. Transcendent values are very spiritual and often make up the core of who you are and what drives you.
The next thing to consider is whether or not the relationship takes priority over personal ambitions. While each of you has to have your own identity to maintain a healthy relationship there’s also a point each of you has to equally sacrifice what you want so the relationship can thrive. The key word is “equally.” That equity is negotiated by the couple and not something anyone outside the relationship can describe. An analogy I use in marriage counseling is that a couple needs to think of their marriage as if it were a small garden planted in the backyard. One person has potting soil and fertilizer the other has a watering hose and other elements required for growing the variety of fruits and vegetables planted in the garden. Each must share the resources in their possession to make the garden flourish. If they don’t, they may have an abundance of these resources but they’ll never have a garden to enjoy. While each of you has your own gifts, talents, and interests, if all you do is spend time refining these and partaking in your own activities you’ll never have the benefit of a loving relationship. You have to make the relationship a priority over your own personal ambitions. That doesn’t mean you can’t do the things you like or pursue certain career goals, it just means you have to have balance and consideration for the other person in the relationship. I once heard someone say “You can have it all, just not all at once” and I think there’s a great deal of wisdom to be garnered from that statement.
My last piece of advice is trust your intuition while using your head. Too often people say, “If you want to know if you’re with the right guy, make a list and write down the positives and negatives about him. If the positives outweigh the negatives then go for it!” Ummmm not really. The problem with this advice is it assumes human beings are driven purely by their rational minds. Well, that’s just not true. We’re driven by a number of things besides reason. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist demonstrated over and over again in his research it’s our passions and loves that drive us, not our minds. We simply use our minds to come up with reasons to explain what we already intuitively know. It doesn’t mean our minds are useless, it just means we tend to have an intuitive sense about something first and then we think about that intuition later. So, it’s important to develop your intuitive sense about things and trust it. You develop intuition by intentionally learning to love and develop good relationships first and let what you know and identify in them become second nature for you. Look at the people in your life who you believe have a good relationship. How do they love one another? Is that something you want? What can you do or who can you become to love and be loved in that way? This is why it’s so important you spend time knowing yourself before you invest yourself in another person. This will develop your intuitive sense of what a good relationship is like and then you can allow it to guide your attraction. Let’s face it, if there’s no intuitive attraction no matter how well these other things work, you still won’t want to be with that individual. The romantic spark at first becomes a burning fire, but even after the fire burns away, there’s something keeping you drawn toward the person you love. That other thing is the intuitive attraction you have for them because of how they love you back.
So while these aren’t bulletproof ways to insure you’ll have a lasting relationship they are important things to consider when deciding if you’ve found “The one.” Above everything else ask yourself this simple question, “Is this someone I can love even when things are tough? Is this someone who will love me during those tough times as well.” When the right two people come together they’re better individual’s than when they were apart. I ‘ve always said I’m the man I am because of the woman I married. If there’s anything good in me it’s because the woman in my life took the raw material I gave her and made it something special. You can find the right person, just be patient and think about these five things I have shared with you today. Who knows, maybe you’ve been with the right person all along and just never took the time to appreciate it!