“Ticks all the boxes”
“Perfect on paper”
“That’s a dealbreaker”
“They’re a ten but…”
“Not a good fit”
“If they’re not X, Y, and Z, why would I change my life to incorporate them?”
If you haven’t said one of these phrases yourself, you’ve probably heard one from a friend. Over dinner or drinks, you’ve likely dissected a recent first date or new relationship, contemplating whether this one will move “to the next level.” Having a checklist can help make those determinations, but it can also become a misguided map.
Loosely followed, relationship checklists can create clarity and foundation for transparent communication. All too often, however, relationship checklists have a flavor of “performance review.” When we’re going down the list, it’s usually to figure out if we want to “promote” the person to a more serious position in our lives.
Will you see them for a second date? Do they fit into your world? Your career? Your family? Your dreams? Do they seem trustworthy? Are they worth exclusivity? These checklists ooze with pragmatism. Don’t you want a little poetry?
Relationship checklists usually start at the surface (think: tall, dark, and handsome), but underneath the superficiality, there’s a deeper layer that hopes to avoid disappointment and dysfunction.
The young careerist wants a partner who values independence so that she can keep her own. The recently divorced person now knows what they will and will not tolerate. The person whose last relationship was a sexless desert now seeks sexual compatibility. Relationship checklists run the gamut from “I want a partner who makes me laugh” to “I want someone who knows how to be tough and tender in the bedroom” to “I can’t be with someone who wants kids.”
It’s fantastic to know what you want. It’s important to communicate your desires and values. But there are major downsides to being overly reliant on your relationship checklist. By the time you get to the bottom of it, you may have put yourself in a box and boxed the other person out.
In this box, there is no room for another person to reveal themselves to you with their own needs and wants. There is no room for surprise or playful tension. We miss opportunities for learning how to tolerate differences or disagreements, key features of any mature relationship.
It’s bad enough to have a series of dates with an endless parade of people who “don’t fit.” But what’s worse is convincing yourself that your rigid expectations are an appropriate guide to future happiness. They’re not. And they leave us unprepared to handle conflict and challenges.
Anyone who has been in a long term relationship can tell you that relationship checklists evolve over time. Sometimes the very things we wanted in the beginning are the things that drive us nuts later on. Sometimes what once gave us the ick becomes endearing. We must give each other the benefit of the doubt enough to be able to enjoy how we will grow over time.
A hyper-organized person may love how their spontaneous partner made them feel more daring when they were dating but can’t stand how their partner still struggles to make concrete plans.
An extrovert who charmed an introvert at a party has found, after a few months of dating, they actually enjoy a quiet night at home.
The twenty-something who looked down on a date for living with their parents later on feels immensely grateful that the money saved went toward a down payment on a house together.
Knowing what we want isn’t the same as living it.
In relationships, there is no such thing as a perfect fit. Instead, look for how you fit together, where you fill each other's gaps. Find complementarity. Partnership is about navigating inevitably contrasting desires, wants, needs, and rhythms. Aligning on values is essential, but from there, find joy in the friction of growing together.
It can be scary to let go, to loosen our grip on our relationship checklist. But holding tight to dos, don’ts, and dealbreakers only guarantees pain between partners. We hope that we won’t get hurt again like in the last relationship. We hope our partner will help soothe our pain from childhood. We hope to experience validation that we do not feel at work. But none of this is promised. An ideal relationship is not something our partner owes us; it’s something we build together.