Friday, March 27, 2015

Looking for a partner? The Four Buckets, Part 2

In my last column (click here to read it:, I wrote about a way to think about “fit” when looking for a romantic partner.  I discussed an exercise I call the four buckets, in which Step 1 is to think about and divide up a possible partner’s qualities/behaviors:

Bucket 1: Qualities you require in your relationship: Non-negotiable. Examples: treats me with respect, funny.
Bucket 2: Qualities that are nice to have but it depends on the whole package. These are qualities you’d like a partner to have, but you’re realistic. Examples: adventurous, dependable, spontaneous.
Bucket 3: Qualities that aren’t great but it depends on the whole package. This is the flipside of bucket two. Examples: messy, often late, overly dramatic.
Bucket 4: Qualities to which you say “no way.” Non-negotiable. Examples: disrespectful, abusive.

Once you’ve got your bucket lists, Step 2 fleshes them out as specifically as possible. For instance, how will you know whether your date is treating you with respect? What are the behavioral indicators? What do you mean, specifically, by messy—and how can you tell whether he or she is messy? When you say adventurous, in what contexts? As a result of this refining process, you may find that your lists change somewhat.

Step 3 is to look for or even create situations that make it easier to determine the extent to which the other person has these attributes. For instance, let’s assume you put respect in Bucket 1, and to you that means, in part, that the person doesn’t put you down for holding different opinions. Initiate discussions about controversial topics about which you think you might not agree. (Or you can even play devil’s advocate and take the opposite side, just to see how he or she interacts) Notice how he or she responds when you take that opposite stance. How does he or she treat you?

Similarly, if “overly dramatic” is in your Bucket 3 and someone seems dramatic (but may not seem “overly” dramatic at that point), see what happens when you get “calmer” in response. Does he or she ramp up and get more dramatic? If so, that might suggest a fit that isn’t optimal.

The bottom line for Step 3 is to test the waters early. Sometimes creating conflict is a good way to see how you handle conflict with each other. (It is the interaction between the two of you that will determine the fit.) Typically when dating or in the early phase of a relationship, people are on their best behavior; they’re more willing to be generous, to defer to the other person. So creating a mild to moderate amount of conflict may take work. In those early phases, don’t always be so agreeable about what movie to see or where to eat. If you both are very agreeable, even if you don’t care what you see, assert an opinion so that you can see how he or she responds.

These steps will help you collect “data” early about the qualities and behaviors that matter to you. This process isn’t only for romantic relationships. It can work for friends as well.

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