As a serial wrong-guy dater—as in, my boyfriends generally check off exactly zero of the items on my wishlist—I'm personally invested in answering this question. So, I turned to relationship experts for insight (and, it turns out, a little tough love). Keep reading to find out how you can get out of your own way in order to attract the type of partner you (and, probably, your mom) envision for yourself.
Here's how to break the cycle if you always find yourself dating the wrong people.
Become what it is you're looking for...
First and foremost, some harsh news: It's probably not them, it's you. "I think when we’re looking for a certain something, it’s actually an unfulfilled thing within ourselves," says marriage and family psychotherapist Tristan Coopersmith, MA, MFT. "If a person isn’t financially secure, for example, it might be something he or she is wanting within his or her own life, which is why he or she is finding it attractive in someone else’s."
This doesn't mean you'd need to abandon your low-paying-but-fulfilling career for a law degree in order to attract someone who offers financial security, Coopersmith explains. In fact, the adjustment required in this example has little to do with the size of your bank account. Instead, it's about working to align your own values with those you want to see in a partner.
"We can't ask someone to be something we're not," she says. "If you value financial responsibility in someone, you have to show up like that." (So you don't have to make a million dollars a year, but you do need to start paying your bills on time.) Yvonne Thomas, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who specializes in relationships, agrees. "Having similar values in yourself that you also want in a partner can help spark the interest [of] the kind of person you'd want to date," she says.
There's also a long-term upside to this values-based approach, says Coopersmith. "When we look at relationships that dismantle, often times the partners have opposing values—for instance, one’s a spender and one’s a saver, so they’re always fighting about money," she says, noting that when values are actually aligned, there's a sense of mutual appreciation. "These commonalities can help lead to compatibility, which is one of the factors necessary in a successful love relationship," Thomas adds.
...or adjust your expectations
Greg Behrendt, co-author of How To Keep Your Marriage From Sucking (and also the zeigeist-making He's Just Not That Into You) offers another way of looking at this. "More important [than becoming the person you want to date] is becoming the best version of yourself," says Behrendt.
Maybe the best version of yourself is the one avoiding phone calls from creditors—because deep down, you value other things, like passion or freedom, over financial security. In this case, what's needed is not to become more financially stable, but rather to accept that you don't care as much about money as you tell yourself you do. Then, re-evaluate what it is you're looking for in someone else with those reframed values in mind.
You may find that you already are attracting the "right" partners and just haven't been able to properly identify them. "Once you become a person content with their life who can go to bed happy just being themselves, someone will come along and try and ruin that with their love," jokes Behrendt's co-author, Amiira Ruotola.
Rethink your "list"
One thing that can help you to clarify what you're looking for is a list—but not the traits-based kind you're usually told to use in order to manifest your mate. "I encourage my clients to make a list of how they want to feel in a relationship," Coopersmith says.
This, she explains, moves the criteria away from the superficial—"He should be six-feet tall and come from a good family"—and focuses it more on an overall outcome. ("I want to feel secure," "I want to feel adored," or "I want to feel inspired.") Coopersmith says this approach better ensures longevity in the relationship. "Those things probably won't change," she says, while pointing out that a great head of hair might.
It's also important to remember that humans aren't static, but that they evolve in relation to other humans. "You want someone you can grow with in a synergistic pairing, not a list of attributes and traits," Ruotola says. "That's for roommates."
Be authentic on social media
For better or for worse, say my experts, your social media presence may be playing a role in who it is you're attracting. For this reason, both Coopersmith and Thomas agree that in the digital realm, it's important to be as authentic as possible.
"An accurate and honest social media image is important so you can attract like-minded potential partners and not give confusing messages about who you are," says Thomas. Sure, it might be tempting to curate a feed that'll make people jealous. But if you give the impression that you're a party animal—when, in reality you are in bed with your night guard by 9pm every night—you're probably not going to attract a good match. "You should consider what you’re fishing for when you post that bait," says Behrendt.
When I tell Coopersmith that I feel my own disinterest in social media is affecting my chances in the world of avatar-centric dating (because, you know, I'm so much cooler than I seem online, wink, wink), she tells me not to worry. "If you don’t give a sh*t about social media, your potential mate isn’t going to, either," she says. "Again, it goes back to values."
Don't waste time on the wrong ones
If you suspect you're settling, it might be a good idea to crosscheck your partner against the priority lists recommended above, suggest both Thomas and Coopersmith. If the two don't align, it's probably time to move on.
Coopersmith also suggests adopting a strategy utilized by her brother, who imposed a three-date check-in on any potential relationships. "He was like, 'I don’t know if I’m definitely going to marry someone after one or two dates, but I know if I'm definitely not,'" she tells me. Behrendt, meanwhile, offers similar advice that can help you make this call. "People either become more or less attractive the more time you spend with them," he says. "Listen to your gut."
Still not sure what you should be looking for? Here's more help, based on your Meyers-Briggs personality type. And these are the dating profile red-flags you should always avoid.
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