Dating to find “The One” is extremely limiting—and often leads to major disappointment. There is never going to be one perfect person whose love is so powerful that it checks every box, heals all our wounds, and makes us want to delete all the apps. And putting that pressure on a romantic connection, especially early on, can prevent a dalliance from developing into something more. Perfection is the enemy of the good, especially in relationships. Why do we carry these expectations of potential partners when we know that we’re not perfect either? Instead of looking for perfection, look for potential. Great potential is fundamental to meaningful growth, and couples are supposed to grow and change. There is a difference, as Justin Lehmiller explains, between “destiny relationships” and “developmental relationships.” Developmental relationships are the ones that ebb and flow, navigating life’s many issues, and growing from them. Destiny relationships—those of fate and perfection and “the one”—often break when the mythology of perfect love with “the one" reveals itself in the cracks of our relationships.
There have been multiple people with whom we have had a life and, for a time, maybe we did. But people we love are not necessarily the same people we can make a life with. Life stories are not the same as love stories. It’s a different set of ingredients, different aspirations. We can have an incredible romantic interlude for a few months, totally disconnected from our realities, and it can be a perfect, beautiful love. But it has little to do with the intricate scaffolding that supports a life together. Viewing marriage as the ultimate goal of a romantic connection reduces a complex set of needs and stuffs it into a social construct that doesn’t serve every type of relationship we can have. What would have happened if our goal in every previous relationship was to get married? It’s likely we would have suffocated the relationship or ended up in an unhappy marriage. Relationships address many human needs, but very few of them can accommodate all of our needs. Marriage can be great, of course, and asking for commitment and exclusivity is a normal part of many relationships—but remember: putting a ring on it doesn’t automatically make two people more compatible as life partners.
For those of us who jump from relationship to relationship, a pattern sometimes emerges. We pursue a new relationship for a few months while in seduction mode and then find ourselves bored, disinterested, disappointed, and looking for the next person to come along. Why? Is it because “we haven’t found the right person yet,” or is it because we’re not yet familiar with our own attachment style? Love, desire, connection—all of the things that make us want to stay and go deeper with someone—are not induced by another person. They are co-created. Instead of asking whether we’ve found the right person, learn what it would be like to be in a relationship in which both partners are mutually interested in being good for each other. It’s not just the other person’s responsibility to woo us, maintain our attention, heal us, and help us grow. Love can do many things but it can’t do everything and neither can our partners. Love is a verb, not a permanent state of enthusiasm—and it takes everyone in the relationship to sustain and grow it.
There are times when we need to show the person we’re dating how deeply we feel for them and there are times when we need to stop. When we struggle to know which is which, it can help to ask ourselves: Am I trying to prove how much I care about this person because they’re doubting it? Because they need a push to realize what we have together? Or am I struggling with my own feelings of rejection? Is this about our connection or is this about me? Can I privately deal with this unbearable rejection or do I feel entitled to another shot? If so, why? We have a tendency to respond to disconnection by gripping tighter, even when we see that our behavior isn’t yielding our desired outcome. There are many reasons why someone with whom we felt we had a deep connection may seem to inexplicably slip away. But there is a difference between trying harder and self-degradation. And no amount of self-degradation will provoke the true feeling of love in another person. Modern love and desire is about free will. We can’t make people love us. We can invite the love of another. We can behave in ways that invite people to appreciate us, to realize the beauty of what we share, and to let the feeling of love grow inside from a glimmer to a flame. If the person we like isn’t interested, we have to let them lose us.
“Brain studies have shown that the withdrawal of romantic love activates the same mechanisms in our brain that get activated when addicts are withdrawing from substances like cocaine or opioids,” Guy Winch shares in his TED Talk. “Almost every one of us will have our heart broken.” It’s an experience that can make us never want to try again. But this is the voice of heartbreak. It conveniently highlights the good parts and disregards the shortcomings. Being realistic with ourselves about the shortcomings, however, can help us heal and determine what we want in future relationships. The person who broke our heart wasn’t “the one”—not only because the concept of “the one” is flawed—but because there are many people we can love and who will love us. It takes time to heal, but love is not a finite resource. Bonus: if and when we find a partner who makes us believe in love again—we’ll be grateful that the other ones didn’t work out.