Everyone has a checklist. Whether it’s got three points or three hundred, we all have various things we look for in another person before engaging in a serious relationship. If we really got down to it, most of us would say that the most important are “makes me laugh and treats me well,” but there is no limit to the amount of asterisks we can put on the things we want. They should be tall, hot, smart, witty, motivated, live in a nice apartment, have good taste in sweaters, own a golden retriever named “Kennedy” or some other such yuppie nonsense, etc. But few of us take the time to look at the qualities we possess individually to see how many checks we could tick off on someone else’s list. When it comes to us, we all want to be judged as human beings with flaws, someone who is in a constant state of evolution. It never feels good to think of yourself as being “good on paper,” or not meeting an arbitrary standard — and yet, we are happy to do it with every prospect who pops up on our OKCupid homepage.
Whenever I have a fight or a problem in my relationships, my first response is to look at what the other person has done wrong or could be doing better. It’s an ugly quality, to be sure, but it’s a natural response. It’s easier and more comforting to think about these things in terms of other people’s responsibility — we never want to turn the microscope on ourselves and think about the way we could be hurting other people. Of course, when you scratch the surface of almost any romantic squabble, you pretty quickly realize that the fault is divided up fairly evenly between the two parties (and the sources of conflict are often too complex to work out with a simple change of a single habit). But “dating” in general is something that involves the “other.” We are a constant in our own minds, and whatever changes or goes wrong is a result of the other person invading our space. Even in profoundly close relationships, it’s hard to always take the other person’s humanity and agency into full consideration.
And when we are setting our own standards for a partner — and feeling rightfully entitled to having such standards — it’s all the easier to put the onus for self-improvement and upward mobility on our potential partner. To say “I won’t date someone unless they are smart, kind, career-oriented, capable of compromise, and healthy” is far easier than to say “I won’t date someone until I am all of these things and more.” Of course, there is never a time in which we’re going to be perfectly happy with who we are, but there are certainly minimum goals we could set for ourselves if we made the effort. It’s just never pleasant to consider, because it would require looking at ourselves through the unforgiving eyes of someone else who is meeting us for the first time.
But are we healthy? Are we loving? Are we considerate and ready to compromise? Perhaps the worst moments in any relationship are the ones in which you see yourself — in almost an out-of-body experience — being terrible to your partner. You can feel that you’re being irrational, that you’re taking them for granted, or that you’re being cruel for no reason. You know that you’re wrong, and you know that they would have every reason to leave you in that moment if they wanted. It’s painful mostly because we have to confront the idea that we are fulfilling someone else’s needs and desires, as much as they are fulfilling our own. We are active participants, and not just a ruthless judge and jury who is there to be pleased.
It’s uncomfortable to go on a date or to start a new relationship when you feel like you are not mature enough, or deserving enough, or selfless enough. Though the phrase “it’s not you, it’s me” has been overused into abject meaninglessness, there are still definitely cases to which it applies. If you are living in a terrible apartment, working a job you hate, keeping nothing in the bank, not calling your friends back when you say you will, and partying every night to fill your time — do you expect someone to want to date you? Would you date yourself in their shoes? We all experience moments where we know we are not at our best, and yet it never seems to have an effect on the things we demand from others.
It certainly isn’t a fun idea, but perhaps it is essential to have a list of qualifications for yourself to be ready to go on a date as much as you have for those you’d accept a date from. Because one day (if it hasn’t happened already), someone is going to leave us, and they’re going to have good reason. We will want to blame everything in the world but the bad things we have been doing, but the truth will be that everyone is entitled to personal standards. And though it sucks to imagine yourself as a checklist of qualities, it might behoove all of us to make sure that “treats others with compassion” will always be checked off.