“What are you looking for in a relationship” is a deceptively simple question to answer. Most people have a fast response: “someone to spend time with,” “someone who gets my humor,” “someone who shares my enthusiasm for micro-greens sprouting.” All of these answers are valid. But they aren’t actually answering the question. They are about the person being sought; the desirable, enviable, hypothetical personality traits possessed by your as of yet undiscovered future partner.
We often confuse “what I’m looking for” with “who I’m looking for.” And this is why we can sometimes end up lost in the dating pool. A person can display all the traits we want. But if you two don’t share the same values and vision for the future, you’re destined for short-term fun but long-term heartbreak.
So let’s dig into this question. What are you looking for in a relationship? And how should you respond when (gulp) an extremely dreamy date asks? Let’s talk about how to tackle it.
Imagine A Future That Makes You Happy
Let’s back up to the “before the date” part of romance, the part where it’s just you. Spend a couple minutes (or a couple hours) imagining where you see yourself in one, five, ten, twenty years, and who you are with. Maybe you are in an apartment in the city with a handful of kids. Maybe you are traveling the world with your dog (is a boyfriend even there?). Maybe you are in the suburbs building community gardens with your wife.
Go through as many scenarios as you can think of, and resist the urge to pass judgment on any of them. Just notice which ones make your heart open up, and tug at the corners of your mouth. In other words, figure out which versions of your future make you happy. You don’t have to go all out and make a vision board (although, that’s not a bad idea), but at least consider writing these observations down in a journal. This way, if you ever need to remind yourself where your heart is trying to head, you have a point of reference.
Identify Your Values
After the goal daydreaming comes everyone’s favorite game: judgment. What do you value within a relationship? Fidelity? Financial Security? The dog being allowed to sleep on the bed without question? There are some scenarios we will never know how we’ll respond to, until we are in them. So you’re not expected to come up with a response to every possible moral quandary. But knowing what nourishment you actually receive out of a relationship can help you better find and cultivate it.
Most of us have had the experience of being madly in love with someone who ultimately was bad for our minds, bodies and/or souls. Let’s put those hard-earned heartbreak lessons to good use. Maybe you know you value a relationship where you both give each other support and space for your careers. Maybe you value traditional gender roles, and a household where your children are your priority.
Knowing what you don’t want is often an easier way to answer this question (“not someone who wants kids,” “not someone who wants to live in the city,” “not someone who listens to Andrew Tate”). But challenge yourself to answer this question in the positive (“someone who wants kids,” “someone who wants to live in the country,” “someone who supports women in the media”).
In other words: don’t train your brain to settle for something that’s “not what I don’t want.” Spend some time clearly identifying what you do want. It will make it much easier to find once you’re in the thick of the dating scene.
Communicate This. Nicely.
Okay, so now you know what your dream future is (or some concrete ideas, anyway), and you can identify what makes you feel nourished, safe, and happy in your next relationship. Now it’s time to share this with prospective dates.
The key here is to be honest, but not blunt. Don’t just start rattling off requirements like you’re a hiring manager. Imagine if you’re on the other side of the conversation: how would you like to hear about someone’s relationship dreams and goals?
When you’re on that first date, and are asked “what are you looking for in a relationship,” consider sharing a few of those beautiful scenes you dreamed up: “I am looking for someone to help me raise children,” “I see myself building a family business, probably somewhere in the country.” These aren’t promises; first dates are about exploration, conversation and perhaps even, dare we say it, fun. Just be honest about where you see yourself.
See How They Respond
People date for all kinds of different reasons: some are looking for their future life partner, some are just afraid of being single. Sometimes we may not even know why we date. Human brains are programmed to seek companionship, and there’s nothing wrong with that instinct. But many people have become flat-out addicted to dating in the era where finding love is billed as an online game of swipes. If you start describing your dream condo with three kids in downtown Chicago, and you notice your date is flinching and checking their phone…I mean, that’s information we’re glad we got out on the first date, right?
Ask What the Other Person Wants
Relationships are two way streets, a meeting of two minds working on shared goals.
Once you’re done sharing some of your visions for the future, ask what your date is looking for. They may have a ready response that matches yours (the dream!). They may have a polar opposite dream (“well, nice to meet you!”). Or they may have a million competing scenarios: “I might want kids, maybe not.” “I want to travel, but also I like the idea of buying a house and settling down.” “I like steak, but I’m on/off vegan.” This is a sign of a person who doesn’t know what they are looking for yet. While this doesn’t mean you should escape through the bathroom window of the restaurant, it is something to keep in mind. If you know what you want, consider that this person just told you they are still figuring it out. Proceed with caution.
Prepare For Some Quiet Time
Once you actually identify what you’re looking for in your next relationship, your dating options will shrink. There’s no other way to say it. But this is not a bad thing, in fact for many people this is a relief. Once you know what you’re actually looking for, the adventure of dating starts to take on a very different hue. It’s no longer a random string of meet ups, and a more focused, intentional journey. Most of our clients want to spend their time going on fewer dates with people who have been vetted just for them; this is what we mean by dating smarter, not more. It’s not the right approach for every person, but for most people who have focused relationship goals, this is ideal.
Stick it Out
Knowing what you’re looking for isn’t always easy. We can get distracted, our values can change as we take in new information, and we might realize something we wanted 10 years ago is no longer right for us. That’s why it helps to chat with friends, family or professional matchmakers who can really help you hone in on your relationship goals. The good news is, once you know, it’s all just a matter of patience and time.