Have you been told you’re too picky? Those were the words that launched a thousand chocolate-bar wrappers when I was searching for a mate. Some told me I would never find what I wanted; I needed to settle, or I’d be single forever.
Yet in my experience, most people’s standards aren’t too high; they’re too low.
If I had to summarize over 60 years of excellent relationship research in just one sentence, that sentence would be: If you can find and be someone kind and respectful, your relationship will probably work; and if you can’t, it won’t.
In practical terms, this means no haters. Research clearly shows that relationships can’t survive happily without kindness. Kindness sets down deep roots to keep love alive even when winter comes; but every season is bleak without it.
Kind people treat others well regardless of what type of day they are having, or whether they’re falling behind at work, etc. They don’t need an excuse to be kind, and they don’t take bad times as excuses not to be. They are kind as a matter of course, because it is part of their ethical or moral code to be that way—not because they are feeling good at that moment, and not because other people do or don’t make them happy. For them, kindness is a lifestyle, a way of being.
They avoid being mean-spirited even when they are interacting with people they don’t necessarily like or agree with. They might disagree agreeably, or choose to set boundaries so they’re not around those folks too often; but when they must be in their presence, kind people are careful, not cruel. Successful relationships require a lot of self-control, and kind people practice it.
Embracing these two standards also means no chronic criticizers. Again, decades of research underscore that getting and giving basic respect is a necessity, not a nicety. Respect can create love where there was none, but habitual character assassination will eventually kill even the most fervent romance.
As with kindness, you should look for and require a partner who is respectful toward everyone—not just you. Such people affirm others’ worth in words and deeds even when things don’t go their way. They speak well of others, and when that’s not possible, they either say nothing, or speak their truth without hate.
What does this look like? Here are two examples from my own search:
When I was dating on-line, I sometimes met men who were an amazingly good match—on pixels. "Dennis" (not his real name) was one. We shared the same faith, politics, and interests. We both enjoyed reading and writing. We even lived near one another, and were single-parenting. I thought he was charming online, so when he suggested we meet for coffee, I was excited.
We pulled our chairs up to the table, and I did something I teach my clients: I looked him in the eye, smiled, leaned towards him, and asked open-ended questions. “What are your girls up to today? How’s the single-parenting gig going?”
What he shot back shocked me. I can’t even quote you what he said, because I have tried to blot it from memory. But it amounted to a very long story of how much he hated his ex-wife, what a horrendous person and parent she was, what a hero he was for allowing her to continue breathing oxygen…The sarcasm, contempt, and anger made me feel like running for my life. The chip on his shoulder grew into a boulder before my very eyes. Stunned, and wondering if his wounds were fresh, I asked, “Wow, it sounds like you’ve had an awful time trying to parent with her. How long ago was the divorce?”
I never saw Dennis again—by design. His behavior was extremely disrespectful to the mother of his children. He was not kind to her memory, nor was he making an effort to be. He was consumed by anger and a desire for revenge, and his hate was ruining his life—and made mine miserable even for the hour we spent together.
But had he been speaking of a stranger, the disrespect would still have been a deal-breaker.
Contrast that with my first lengthy talk with Vic: “So, you divorced not too long ago. How were things before? What’s your relationship like with your ex now?” I will never forget his response: “We’ve had our troubles, and the divorce was really hard. But in our child’s interest, we’ve been able to put a lot of our differences aside. I think we’re moving towards a good working relationship.”
I later learned that they’d had an awful divorce, with over a decade of pain beforehand. And the only way they found peace afterwards was by interacting as little as possible. But those interactions were, as a rule, respectful. And Vic’s response to my question was kind and respectful—not just to me, but to his ex.
I was impressed then. And I still am—we are married.
The upshot? If you can be kind and respectful, it is reasonable to expect to find someone else who can be, too. The world is brim-full with good people like you. Time to find one.