You’ve had some bad experiences in past relationships, and you’re making a list and checking it twice for all the things about your former partner(s) that were “naughty or nice.”
If you’re like many people, that list will be heavy on negative qualities, which will likely grow longer with each relationship. You might not think it necessary to include the good qualities, because they seem relatively simple and small in number. You want a “good person” with a sense of humor. You want him or her to be loyal, honorable, reliable, responsible, and physically attractive. It would be difficult and probably unnecessary to flesh out all the minutiae of those basic characteristics – the cute little personality quirks and details of character – that make someone adorable or admirable. But chances are, you won’t have any such difficulty listing details of negative characteristics.
If you’re like me, the list of bad or annoying things about a former (or current) love can be added on to effortlessly. It seems that there’s a near-infinite number of qualities in them that are either bad, questionable, or could stand improvement.
One thing that probably isn’t on your list are the qualities about yourself that are bad, questionable, or in need of improvement.
So you have this list which you may treat as both a cautionary tale and a blueprint for finding a more compatible partner next time. But while knowing which characteristics you don’t like in a partner may not be bad in and of itself, a laundry list of negative attributes isn’t very useful as a guide for finding “The One” because:
• It’s extremely long and unwieldy, requiring considerable time to check off each item, and also can easily be added onto in unpredictable ways in your next relationship (you may have “addiction to alcohol” on your avoidance list, but what about “addiction to cycling/exercise,” which you discover in your next partner?).
• The negative traits can be misleading – that is, a moody person might have good reason for being temporarily moody, as opposed to your chronically depressed ex.
• It dwells on the negative while largely eliding the positive things that actually cause you to fall in love with someone.
• It doesn’t answer to what degree you may be misunderstanding or contributing to negative aspects of a relationship.
• Negative characteristics can manifest in many, if not countless ways, so without an understanding of the underlying processes you won’t be able to eliminate them until you’ve already lived through them.
Mira Kirschenbaum, in her book Too Good To Leave, Too Bad To Stay, envisions this kind of list as bad and good items on a balance scale:
When it comes to relationships, the balance-scale approach is the problem, not the solution. It gets us into trouble, not out of it. How can you weigh the things you know about your relationship in the present against a huge uncertain future? How can you weigh a problem that’s bad for you against the knowledge a lot of people have this problem but don’t seem to be breaking up their relationship over it? How can you weigh a problem that makes you want to scream today against the possibility that it won’t bother you so much tomorrow?
With the balance-scale approach pieces of evidence keep sliding in and out of the picture. You try to add things up that don’t add up, to compare things that can’t be compared. Like a tenderfoot in the woods, the more you try to find your way, the more lost you get.
In my view, perhaps the most damaging element in laundry lists is that it frames the problem for your failed relationships as existing outside yourself. It is well-known in psychological circles that “other blame” and “negative externalization” in general (projection of the causes of bad things in your life into external things and circumstances, including people) are harmful to oneself.
Two basic problems are: 1)shifting responsibility to others (or other things) transfers the power of correcting those problems to others, disempowering yourself; 2) you deprive yourself of the fruits of self-examination. In addition, as David Burns has pointed out in his study of what breaks couples apart, “People who blamed their partners (or people in general) for the problems in their relationships were angry, frustrated, unhappy, and intensely dissatisfied with their relationships.” [Feeling Good Together]
If I had to summarize what I think is mistaken about the Laundry List strategy, I’d say it overlooks that which most fundamentally attracts us to other people (and vice versa). In other words, when you walk into a crowded room and someone catches your eye, and you find yourself drawn to them, that is not the result of cross-referencing them to a lengthy list. You have some basic qualities in mind, certainly – perhaps their expression, the way they smile or laugh or move, their general appearance, and so on – but you’re relating to them mostly on an elemental, wordless level. It’s what we call “chemistry.”
What a lot of people do, in my observation, is arm themselves against this kind of personal chemistry with lists of negative traits, because they’ve learned that while they may find a certain kind of person deeply attractive, this is insufficient for a good relationship. One problem is that they keep finding themselves attracted to people who eventually prove incompatible, and laundry lists of undesirable traits neither prevent that initial attraction (because people rarely demonstrate these qualities initially, and only incompletely when they do) nor address the deeper, more fundamental reasons why we’re attracted to these people in the first place. So after a great deal of pain and more items added to our list, we eventually break up with these people.
It seems to me that the initial attraction is where the problem truly lies. If you’re attracted to people who aren’t good for you (and vice versa) – if you’re drawn to “bad boys,” emotionally unavailable people, verbal abusers, or narcissists – you’re in trouble from the get-go. Employing laundry lists may only serve to place you on a never-ending unmerry-go-round of initial attraction – honeymoon/fantasy phase – identification of undesirable traits and growing dissatisfaction – and breakup, with yet more bad attributes piled onto the list.
The obvious solution is to be attracted to, and to attract, the right people from the outset. What could be simpler? The bad news is that may not be easy, and will likely involve addressing some core issues in your views of yourself and others. The good news is that there is a natural learning process for most semi-sane people, which can doubtless be accelerated by self-examination.
I’m sure many of us have noticed that we aren’t attracted to the same partners as we were in high school or even college. Over time, our attraction to “bad boys” or “emotionally distant women” may have waned. In much of high school, all I longed for was what I judged to be the most beautiful women, regardless of personality or intelligence, but a few years later I found other qualities far more appealing – intelligence, humor, depth of character, etc. – and would not have even looked twice at those high school “hotties.” Well, maybe twice – but the second look would be more of a glance.
Part of that learning process does involve, of course, an identification of what we like or dislike, and while I won’t attempt to outline one clear strategy for learning to instinctively like people who are good for us, I feel safe in saying that abandoning your Laundry List and trying to see the deeper issues at play are very positive first steps.