Finding a life partner is one of the most important decisions you can make in your life. But how do you pick the right life partner?
In his two-part series, Wait But Why author, Tim Urban describes how to choose a life partner, the factors working against us, the types of people that often fail at happy relationships, and what actually makes a great life partnership.
Chia and I really enjoyed reading this piece and for those interested, we've summarized the key insights for you here.
The Relationship Landscape
Single people may often feel like this:
But in reality, it’s more like this:
In other words, it may feel like being in a relationship is always better than being single. However, being in a bad relationship actually puts you farther away from a good relationship than being single (you need to break up and emotionally recover first).
On average, single people are in the middle of the spectrum of happy couples in good relationships and miserable couples in bad relationships.
So, how do we optimize for being that happy couple? Simple, choose the right life partner.
When you choose a life partner, you’re choosing a lot of things, including your parenting partner, your eating companion for about 20,000 meals, your travel companion for about 100 vacations, your primary leisure time and retirement friend, your career therapist, and someone whose day you’ll hear about 18,000 times.
To figure out how to choose the right partner, you first have to understand why so many people end up at the bottom of the “figured it out” staircase in an unhappy relationship.
The Factors Working Against Us
1. We’re bad at knowing what we want
People are generally bad at predicting their relationship preferences because their persona and needs as a single person are different than when they are in a relationship. As with anything in life, you also need enough experience to get good at it. But we rarely have enough time to be in more than a few serious relationships before we decide on our life partner.
2. Society gives us terrible advice and we act upon it
Example 1: Society encourages us to let romance be our guide.
When it comes to dating, we tend to rely on fate and hope for the best. If you approached finding love the way you approached succeeding in business with a detailed plan of action, organized spreadsheets, and notes, you would be deemed an over-rational weirdo by society. Yet, in reality, you need to do more than just wait to get lucky.
Example 2: Society places a stigma on intelligently expanding our search for potential partners.
We all probably have a long list of characteristics we want in a partner, but our dating choices are primarily limited by the pool of options we have available to us.
Logically, this means we should be doing a lot of online dating, speed dating, and utilizing other systems created to broaden our candidate pool in an intelligent way, but society frowns upon this. While the stigma is diminishing, it’s still more respectable to have met your life partner by chance (i.e. magically bumping into them or being introduced through friends) than through a dating site.
Example 3: Society rushes us.
Get married before you’re “too old” (i.e. between 25-35) is a societal rule that’s taken much more seriously than “whatever you do, don’t marry the wrong person.”
This doesn’t make much sense–a 37-year-old single person is only one step away from a happy marriage while an unhappily married 37-year-old with two children must either settle for permanent unhappiness or endure a messy divorce just to be where the single person is.
3. Our biology is not helping
Example 1: Our biology has evolved for “okay, let’s do this” rather than “let’s think through this”.
We’re biologically hardwired to commit. For example, if we feel the slightest bit of excitement for another person, chemicals are triggered that get us to mate (lust), fall in love (the Honeymoon Phase), and commit for the long haul (attachment). We can override this process if we don’t like someone, but for middle ground cases where we should find something better, we tend to succumb to the chemicals and get engaged anyway.
Example 2: Biological clocks suck.
One of the biggest limitations for a woman who wants to have biological children with her partner is the need to pick the right person by around forty. This makes an already difficult process even more stressful but adopting children with the right life partner is a better option than having biological children with the wrong one.
Combining people who don’t know what they want with societal and biological pressures results in a lot of people messing up the most important decision of their life.
The 5 Types of People Who End Up in Unhappy Relationships
1. Overly Romantic Ronald
Overly romantic people believe that love and romance are enough to marry or stay in a relationship. They’ll silence the little voice that repeatedly questions the constant fights and the feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem that stem from the relationship. “I’m totally in love with her, and that’s all that matters,” they’ll tell themselves and hang onto this belief throughout the next 50 years of an unhappy marriage.
2. Fear-Driven Frida
Many otherwise-rational people are driven by fear to pick a life partner -- fear of being the last single friend, fear of being an older parent, fear of being judged, or talked about by friends and family, etc. Accordingly, they end up settling for a subpar relationship. The only rational fear we should have is spending two-thirds of our lives unhappily with the wrong person.
3. Externally-Influenced Ed
Externally-influenced people let others play too big a part in their life partner decision. They’ll break up with a potentially great partner because of external disapproval from family expectations (i.e. different religious backgrounds) or they’ll stay with someone that they don’t want to be with because others like that person.
4. Shallow Sharon
Shallow people are more concerned with the on-paper description of their life partner (i.e. height, job prestige, wealth, degrees, etc.) rather than their personality or the quality of their connection. Some call this a “scan-tron partner” because they correctly fill out all the bubbles.
5. Selfish Stanley
There are 3 types of selfish:
Type 1: The “My Way or the Highway”
This person believes their needs and desires are more important than their partner’s and doesn’t compromise. At best, this person ends up with a super easy-going person and, at worst, a pushover with a self-esteem issue.
Type 2: The Main Character
This person is massively self-absorbed. They want a life partner who serves as both their therapist and biggest fan but is mostly uninterested in returning either favor. 90% of discussions center around this person and they end up with a boring sidekick as a life partner.
Type 3: The Needs-Driven
Everyone has needs that they want their partners to meet, e.g., cooks for me, is rich, great in bed, etc. But if these perks become the primary reason for choosing someone as a life partner, the novelty will eventually wear off and it will be a dull ride if there aren’t any other good parts of the relationship.
All of the above types of people end up in unhappy relationships because they get consumed by motivations that don’t factor in the reality of what a life partnership truly is and what makes it a happy one.
So what makes a happy life partnership?
If you zoomed in on a happy relationship, you’d see that it’s not built out of anything grand like in Hollywood movies, but out of 20,000 mundane Wednesdays that have been made meaningful.
Achieving happiness in a life-long partnership is all about learning to be happy on a routine weekday or when you’re having dinner for the 4,386th time together.
The three key ingredients to make this possible:
1. An Epic Friendship
At the core of all great relationships is an epic friendship and at the core of all epic friendships is being able to pass the Traffic Test.
The Traffic Test is when you’re hanging out with someone and the time spent together is so high-quality and fun that, as one of you is driving the other person back home, you find yourself rooting for traffic.
A Traffic Test-passing friendship entails:
- A great sense of humor click. No one wants to spend 50 years fake laughing.
- Fun and the ability to extract fun out of unfun situations (e.g., airport delays, errands).
- Respect for each other’s way of thinking. A life partner doubles as a career/life therapist. If you don’t respect how they think, you’re not going to want to tell them your thoughts on work or anything else interesting that pops into your head because you won’t really care what they have to say about it.
- A decent number of common interests, activities, and people-preferences. Otherwise, the things that make you ‘you’ will become a much smaller part of your life, and you and your life partner will struggle to find enjoyable ways to spend a free Saturday together.
2. A Feeling of Home
Feeling “at home” means feeling safe, cozy, natural, and utterly yourself. It’s important to feel at home in a life-long partnership because even the slightest bit of discomfort between you and your life partner will grow into pain and eventually, torture that only magnifies over time.
To have this feeling with a partner, a few things need to be in place:
- Trust and security. Secrets destroy relationships because they form an invisible wall that leaves both people feeling alone and suspicious. No one wants to spend 50 years lying or worrying about hiding something.
- Natural chemistry. Interacting should be easy and natural and you should feel like you’re both on the same “wavelength”. When you’re with someone on a very different energy level, the interaction quickly becomes exhausting.
- Acceptance of human flaws. As humans, we need to understand that we are all really flawed. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t work on self-improvement, but in a life partnership, the healthy attitude should be, “Every person has flaws, these are my partner’s, and they’re part of the package I knowingly chose to spend my life with.”
- A generally positive vibe. It’s not sustainable to constantly have a negative vibe in your relationship. Relationship scientist John Gottman found that “couples with a ratio of fewer than five positive interactions for every negative one are destined for divorce.
3. A Determination to be Good at Marriage
Relationships are really hard. Expecting a strong relationship without treating it like a rigorous job that requires specific skill sets is like expecting a great career without putting in any effort.
So what skills do you need to learn to be good at marriage?
- Communication. Communication is as obvious as saying you need “oxygen” to stay healthy. Yet, poor communication is the top thing that divorcees said they’d change for their next relationship. While it’s hard to communicate well consistently, it’s a skill that successful couples invest in and continually improve upon.
- Maintaining equality. Relationships can slip into an unequal power dynamic quickly especially when one person’s mood, needs, or opinions always prevail over the other person’s. If you wouldn’t stand for being treated this way yourself, then it’s probably a sign of inequality in your relationship.
- Fighting well. Fighting is inevitable. But there are good and bad ways to fight. When a couple is good at fighting, they defuse tension, approach things with humor, and genuinely listen, while avoid getting nasty, personal, or defensive. They also fight less than a bad couple and avoid engaging in the same fights repeatedly.
In searching for your life partner or assessing your current life partnership, it’s important to remember that you won’t always get an A in the above items, but you should be determined to do well on most of them since they contribute the most to a happy relationship.
- There are very happy couples and very miserable couples. Single people fall in the middle.
- There are lots of factors working against us when we’re trying to find the right life partner:
- Many people aren’t good at knowing what they want in a relationship.
- Society tells them to under-think, under-explore, and rush to find a life partner.
- Biology drugs us as we try to figure all this out and promises to stop producing children before long.
- There are 5 types of people who fall victim to and end up in unhappy relationships.
- The overly romantic, the fear-driven, the externally-influenced, the shallow, and the selfish.
- These people are motivated by things that don’t contribute to a happy lifelong partnership.
- The 3 most important ingredients for a happy relationship are:
- An epic friendship that passes the Traffic Test.
- A feeling of home that includes trust, chemistry, acceptance, and positivity.
- A determination to be good at the relationship/marriage that focuses on communication, equality, and fighting well.
- Happy relationships aren’t honeymoons in Thailand—it’s day four of vacation #56 that you take together and being able to find joy in having dinner #4,386 on a Forgettable Wednesday.