Suppose you could choose ten qualities that your future spouse will have. Which would you choose? But wait-let’s sweeten the deal. Not only do you get to select ten positive qualities this person will have, but you can also identify and eliminate ten deficits. Which twenty items would make your list?
At a recent singles seminar where I spoke, I asked for a volunteer and an energetic young woman named Jessie came bounding up to podium.
“Okay, Jessie,” I said. “I’m going to put you on the hot seat. I want you to tell everybody here what you’re looking for in a partner.”
“Oh, that’s no problem,” she responded, clearly enjoying being my guinea pig. “I can tell you exactly what I want in a man, because I’ve given it a lot of thought. I want someone who’s good-looking, hard-working, fun-loving-oh yeah, and mentally stable.”
The audience laughed, and I said, “That’s a good start. What else?”
She thought for several moments, then said, “Well, uh, I guess he’d need to have good manners, too. And I want a man who’s thoughtful-someone who will bring me flowers and chocolate.”
I asked if she wanted to add anything else to her list, and she said, “Nope. That’s it. If I could marry a man like that, I’d be very happy!”
Then I got to the point of this exercise: “Actually, Jessie, I don’t think you’d be very happy. Based on my thirty-five years of experience as a psychologist, I can tell you that when people name only a few indistinct qualities, they end up with a spouse who has a lot of characteristics they don’t like. And over the course of many years, undesirable traits or missing attributes become a source of tremendous frustrations. I’m not trying to pick on you, Jessie, because the vast majority of singles I talk to have a list like yours. It’s far too vague, general, and limited. To find a partner who is a great match for you-and to someday have an outstanding marriage-you must be extremely precise about what it is you want and don’t want in a partner.”
Your “Top Ten” Lists
All of this is why I stress to singles the vital importance of compiling lists of top ten positive qualities and top ten negative qualities-or what I call “must-have” and “can’t-stand” lists. Becoming crystal clear about these characteristics will prepare you to be a highly efficient “mate shopper,” a person who will know with confidence and clarity whether a potential partner is worth pursuing. If you think it’s important to have a shopping list when you go to the grocery store, it’s a thousand times more important to have a shopping list when you’re looking for a partner.
So what should go on your list? That all depends on you. You’ve got to spend plenty of time pondering, contemplating, and soul-searching. After carefully sorting and sifting all your likes and dislikes, your preferences and aversions, write them all out. Make a long, detailed inventory-and then narrow it down through a process of elimination. Your goal is to end up with a total of twenty nonnegotiable items.
For instance, I know many people for whom spiritual pursuits are the most important parts of their life. They pray frequently, think a lot about their relationship with God, attend church and Bible classes regularly, and are convinced that the development of their spiritual life matters more than anything else. These people need to put SPIRITUAL PASSION at the top of their must-have list in capital letters.
We could cite hundreds of examples. If you keep your house, car, and desk clean and spotless-and if it’s important that your spouse share your passion for neatness-put this on your list. If you hate secondhand smoke, you should put “smoking” on your can’t-stand list. If you are super ambitious, and if you get bored by complacent, apathetic people, write “must be a go-getter” on your list. If you have a need for fun and laughter, put “great sense of humor” on your list.
Why Limit the Lists?
Since I believe that there are hundreds of qualities you might wish for in a lifetime mate, I put a limit of ten on your lists only for mathematical and practical reasons. Your “pool of candidates” is usually so limited that your chance of finding a person with every quality on a list of twenty-five or fifty items is very slim.
Here’s what I mean: A woman’s pool of possible spouses is comprised of single men she meets at work, church, the gym, her neighborhood, the softball team, and so on. So if a woman says she wants a partner with a college education, she immediately eliminates many of the men she knows. Likewise, if she wants a man free of all addictions and emotional hang-ups, she eliminates another sizable part of the population. With every criterion from her list, her pool of eligible, qualified bachelors shrinks considerably. We would need a mathematician to calculate the total number of persons required in the beginning pool for her to end up with a “Mr. Right” after applying ten rigorous must-haves and ten equally rigorous can’t-stands.
Do You Really Need a “List?”
Some singles I work with absolutely refuse to build a shopping list. They say, “If I can’t find a person who meets what I know to be necessary for me to be happy, then maybe I’ll need to lower my standards.” And here’s what they never say but what I’m convinced they mean: “I want to get married! I need to get married! Therefore, if I have to settle for less, so be it. After all, a less-than-ideal man (or woman) is better than no man at all.”
I argue against this theme with everything I have. I encourage people to figure out the kind of person they need in order to be really happy and then to hold to these criteria to the very end. Otherwise, they could easily end up being part of the marital failure epidemic plaguing our nation.
Neil Clark Warren is a psychologist and popular speaker based in Pasadena, Calif.