In the pilot for the ABC television show Desperate Housewives, character Gabrielle Solis (she's the beautiful ex-model with the gorgeous rich husband, big house, and bottomless bank account) sets the tone for the series with this simple but poignant statement about her marriage:
"I have everything I wanted -- but I wanted all the wrong things."
More than just a catchy phrase, you don't have to be an unhappy (or desperate) housewife to get what she means. Indeed, when it comes to choosing a life partner, experts say too many of us remain clueless about what we really want and need -- one reason so few of us seem to find it!
"We go round and round, and we date and we date some more and we think, yes! We have finally found the secret to landing that perfect mate. And still the divorce rate goes higher and higher," says psychologist Gilda Carle, PhD, associate professor at Mercy College and author of Don't Bet on the Prince -- How to Have the Man You Want by Betting on Yourself. Clearly, says Carle, something is going wrong.
If you've already figured that part out yourself, take heart. Psychologists say the key to getting off the dating merry-go-round often requires nothing more than taking time to get to know yourself before you try to get to know someone else.
Here are five ways to help you do just that:
- Define your core values.
- Understand your emotional needs.
- Identify your love pattern.
- Test drive a potential relationship.
- Once dating, go in for a three-month checkup.
1. Define Your Core Values
Understanding your core values is at the heart of truly knowing your needs.
"These are the things about yourself that are not likely to change. They are the tenets you grew up believing and that deep down inside still seem to fit into your life no matter what else changes," says JoAnne White, PhD, a therapist and instructor at Temple University.
Indeed, White tells WebMD that no matter how many qualities you put on your list of "must haves," nothing matters quite so much as finding someone who shares your core values. "In the end, they represent who you are and what you need. They are the deal breakers," says White.
While core values are different for every person, they often touch on such personal issues as:
- The desire to have children
- Religious beliefs
- How you deal with money
- How you make important decisions
- The importance you place on honesty, integrity, fidelity
- Even how you view divorce itself
And while we all have heard that opposites attract -- and experts say they do -- when it comes to the really big issues in our life, shared values are still what count the most.
"When it comes to our most important and lasting relationships, it's similar core values that becomes the glue that cements a couple together," Carle tells WebMD.
2. Understand Your Emotional Needs
While core values may form the foundation of who we are, our emotional needs often define the finer points of our relationships. Psychologist Dennis Sugrue says we must acknowledge those emotional needs before we can find someone who can fill them.
"A need for intimacy, for sexual gratification and satisfaction, a need to be honored and understood and even accepted by our partner, these are all important aspects of who we are. Each of us has our own way in which these needs must be met in order to feel happy and secure" says Sugrue , an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and co-author of Sex Matters for Women.
Understanding what fulfillment means to you, he says, is paramount to finding a partner with whom you can feel satisfied and happy.
The one caveat: Trouble comes when we look for a partner to fulfill us in ways that, ultimately, we can only fulfill ourselves.
"If you are looking to a partner to make you feel worthwhile, to make you feel happy, to rescue you from a bored or unhappy life, if you are seeking someone to make you feel complete or whole -- well then you have some work to do, because these are needs that are never going to be met by any one other than yourself," says Sugrue. To put those demands on someone else is to set up yourself -- and the relationship -- for failure.
3. Identify Your Love Pattern
So how do we go about finding the kind of person who can meet our emotional needs and share our core values? Experts say we should look for clues in the good relationships we already have with friends and family members.
"Think about relationships you've had -- or currently have -- that bring out the best in you," says psychologist Dennis Lowe, PhD, founding director of the Center for the Family at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles and a professor of psychology."Think about the relationships in which you have felt you could grow and the ones that left you feeling fulfilled. Not just romantic relationships, but any relationships with family and with friends."
Also important: Think about the people who make you feel safe and secure, the people with whom you can be yourself. Eventually, he says, a pattern of personality traits will begin to emerge. Not coincidentally, these will be the same traits that will serve you best in a romantic partner.
"You are looking for not only character traits, but also ways of relating to you, and you to them. Look for what has worked in previous relationships," Lowe tells WebMD.
White agrees: "In the end, it's often the people around whom you feel the most comfortable that possess the kind of traits you need for a lasting partnership."
4. Test Drive a Potential Relationship
Looking inside yourself can help prepare you for a successful relationship, but eventually you must apply what you've discovered -- and begin seeking a partner. Unfortunately, it's at this point where many of us make some heart-breaking mistakes.
One of the most common mistakes: Believing that a person whose looks and personality you like also possesses the important qualities you need for a long-term relationship -- before you really know the person.
"There's something called cognitive dissonance -- meaning your head believes one thing and your heart believes something else. When you are in the throes of those toe-curling tingles, believe me, your heart is going to overrule your head every time," says relationship coach and matchmaker Melissa Darnay, author of Dating 101.
When your sense of logic finally does come back -- which Darnay says takes about 120 days from your first toe curl -- suddenly your heartthrob may not seem so appealing. It's equally frustrating when you're still "feeling the buzz" and your partner isn't.
Darnay says many such problems could be avoided, if we viewed new relationships like they were a new car -- starting with the "test drive" known as "dating."
"At the early stages of any relationship you should be dating -- and that's dating, not sleeping with -- at least three or four different potential partners," says Darnay. This will give you the emotional distance and time you need to get to know them before you get too serious with any one person.
5. Go in for a Three-Month Checkup
If the relationship progresses and you like what you see, within two months time you can start dating more seriously, perhaps even exclusively. But within three to four months, Darnay says, it's back to the new car analogy for one more spin around the relationship block.
"No matter how good a new car is running you've still got to take it in for that three-month checkup. The same is true for relationships," says Darnay.
That checkup should involve honestly answering some tough questions about your partner, including:
- Is he really as honest as I first thought?
- Does she have the same moral fiber I thought she did?
- Does he really possess the kind of core values that mean something to me?
- Is she who I thought she was?
If the answers are no, pay attention. Experts say red flags are red for a reason -- so you can see them! If your partner isn't making the grade, cut your losses fast and run, says Darnay.
"Remember," she says, "you can change a person's socks, you can change their haircut, but you can't their change their core values -- or yours."