Tips for Singles From a Couples Therapist

(Conquering What Ifs Part 2)

Last year one of my columns addressed some of the common concerns that young couples have when they enter my office. They are asking the following questions:

How do I know if this person is right for me?
How can I trust that these issues we plan to work on will actually improve?
What if we marry and the relationship stops working?

Last time I outlined some concepts that I use to help my coupled clients sort through these What Ifs. If you are single, though, you have the advantage of a head start on some of these issues, because of course one of the most difficult things about these couples’ situations is that they are already IN a relationship.

This time I’d like to address some things I think that singles can learn from my experience counseling couples.

It is important to share common interests, but not that important. Look instead for Willingness and an Open Mind.

My experience of happy couples (and unhappy ones destined to split) is that there is not a high correlation of success just because they share a high number of common interests.

The most important quality is willingness. This can be willingness to try rock climbing, go to a baseball game, have Christmas on the East Coast, or try spicy food. Why? Because although preferences are generally ingrained, willingness to try is a choice – one that tells you a lot else about a person.

But singles today are selective, and seem to be more quality-and-interest driven than ever. Try hard to look beyond your potential date’s favorite things to do on the weekend and look instead at how he or she handles your likes, and how willing they are to go out of their comfort zone.

As nice as it is to spend the day doing your favorite activity with your partner, it can also be nice to enjoy it on your own while they are at home doing their favorite activity – making you a pie.

Ignore Your Ticking Clock…

Not forever, but just long enough to stop making bad decisions. Here’s what I mean: I cannot tell you how many clients I see who are in their relationship because it just seems like the right thing for the time in their lives. Their friends are getting married, or having babies, and these clients are freaking out, thinking that if they can just fix this thing, they too can be part of the world they look out on.

However, when you are able to calm your ticking clock, you can clarify your priorities and see clearly whether or not you are in a relationship that is going somewhere. You are less likely to explain away your partner’s flaws and instead take responsibility for where you are. (And always heed early clues to character).

If the person you are dating has clearly stated preferences that are not suitable or compatible with your long-term goals, then it is time to make a choice. The only wrong decision is waiting and hoping that they will change their mind. They might, but you have to be ok with the fact that they might not.

…But Watch Those Early Cues and Do Something Different This Time

The best marriages are the ones preceded by happy dating relationships, so take your partner at face value and don’t expect flaws to magically disappear over time. (Note: do NOT confuse flaws with interests…see next section).

It’s important to recognize early warning signs in your partner, and also in yourself. Are you easily turned off by something that has an easy remedy? Do something different and see if you can get past that obstacle just this once.

If you are truly undecided and really want to test your compatibility, suggest going to a couples session to discuss what is and isn’t working before you move on. (This is also a great test of Willingness and an Open Mind!)

Be Honest With Yourself About Whether Your “Type” Makes Sense

The temptation to be extra choosy seems natural. However, happiness experts like professor Barry Schwartz advise singles to apply the “good enough” strategy to their love lives (along with my other ideas, of course!)

Wait, doesn’t that bring up the dreaded “S” word…Settling?

Really, take a good look at the kind of people you consistently fall for. Maybe you’re attracted to quiet types, but then their lack of communication ends up bothering you. Or you love active, spontaneous people, but eventually their unpredictability or unwillingness to settle down means they are not the right companion.

It might be time to reconsider your type.

If you’re not sure whether you have a misguided drive for a certain type, try making a list of your past loves’ prominent qualities. Match it up against a list of traits that describe your ideal relationship. See you if you can separate real deal-breakers (doesn’t want children) from qualities that would screen out real potential (loves football).

Making a commitment to someone…anyone…is still an act of faith. There is no objective way to quantify compatibility.