In the sphere of “romance,” sometimes we go looking for a boyfriend or girlfriend with qualities that are the opposite of our last boyfriend or girlfriend. Just as some military strategies are crafted with an eye to how the last war should have been fought, our dating strategies can be crafted with an eye toward “undoing” the problems of the previous relationship.
That’s a fine strategy—as far as it goes. But I’d encourage you to think more broadly. One exercise I’ve found useful with my clients is what I call the four buckets.
The buckets are metaphorical bins—categories about qualities in a prospective mate. The first bucket (the first category) are qualities/behaviors that you require. They are “must haves” for anyone with whom you have an intimate relationship. Non-negotiable. Examples include: treats me with respect; makes me laugh, doesn’t drink to excess. But think more specifically about the qualities in this bucket. What, exactly, do you mean by “treats menwith respect”? How will you know whether he or she is being respectful or disrespectful? When dating someone, what behaviors will indicate to you whether he or she is being respectful?
The second bucket is for qualities that are nice to have but it depends on the whole package. The idea with this bucket is that there are qualities you’d like an intimate partner to have, but you’re realistic. There is no Mr. or Ms. Right, so you have to flex. You might want to have a partner who is funny, smart, adventurous, dependable, rich, etc., but you’ve put the most important qualities in the first bucket (required). So any other positive qualities are gravy. An intimate partner should have some of the qualities in this bucket, but not all. Once you’ve got your list for this bucket, do what you did with the first bucket: Figure out how you’ll know whether the person has any of these qualities. For instance, what do you mean by funny? Funny across the board, or mainly he or she makes you laugh when you feel down? Risque, sarcastic humor? Self-detracting humor or humor that makes fun of others? Of you?
The third bucket is for qualities that aren’t great but it depends on the whole package. This is the flipside of bucket two. Qualities that you’re not thrilled about but you can live with at least some of them, depending on what the positive qualities are. Examples for this bucket include: messy, often late, overly dramatic, emotional swings. In an intimate relationship, the person may be able to improve a bit on these qualities, but don’t count on it. Can you live with someone who has these qualities? As with the other buckets, get specific about how you’d know whether the person has these qualities.
The last bucket is qualities to which you say: no way. Absolutely not. Non-negotiable. You see this quality and you run the other way (or you should). Examples: disrespectful, abusive. As with the other buckets, figure out how you’d know the person had these qualities. What behaviors would indicate these qualities?
More about the buckets in my next column.
Dr. Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to her coaching and psychotherapy practices, she writes college level psychology textbooks. She also writes for a general audience using fictional characters—such as superheroes, Harry Potter, and the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—to illustrate psychological phenomena.
Visit her on the web at www.DrRobinRosenberg.com