What to Look for in a Potential Partner


When people are asked what aspects they value in a potential partner they tend to list physical qualities, socially desirable characteristics, and unrealistic expectations.  Furthermore, as we learned in the previous blog posting, we tend to make judgments about the other person’s trustworthiness, competence, and likability within the first tenth of a second, during the first glimpse of that person.1

We know that, for short-term relationships, physical qualities are valued but for long-term relationships, honesty, warmth and intelligence are valued.2 Other qualities typically valued are sensitivity, consideration, generosity, respect, responsiveness, and responsibility.  Yet none of us demonstrate these qualities all of the time.  We sometimes show the polar opposite, such as insensitivity, inconsiderateness, selfishness, rudeness, apathy, and irresponsibility.

Therefore, we should not expect these valued qualities to be fully formed and demonstrated all the time.  In fact, partners in growth-promoting relationships develop these qualities to a deeper degree as their relationship and they, themselves, mature.3 Yes, do look for these qualities but don’t expect them to always be present.

There are three qualities, however, that are especially important to look for in oneself as well as in a prospective long-term partner. They are so important that they actually predict the ability to form a lasting and growth-promoting relationship.4

These three qualities (some may even call them skills) are empathy, acceptance, and intimacy.  Empathy is the capacity to accurately understand others’ experiences and motivations, to appreciate others’ perspectives even if one disagrees with them, and to be aware of the effect of one’s own actions on others.  Acceptance is an unconditional love, a love without requiring oneself or the other to be a certain way or meet one’s expectations. Intimacy is the ability to engage in caring, close and reciprocal relationships; to strive for cooperation and mutual benefit; and to flexibly respond to the range of others’ ideas, emotions, and behaviors.5

Does your potential partner listen so carefully to you that he/she can acknowledge the essence of what you said?  Does your potential partner make you feel loved just for who you are or does he/she often criticize you for not meeting his/her expectations?  Does your potential partner spontaneously disclose what he/she is thinking and feeling at a given moment and respond to your thoughts and feelings in a way that helps you feel close to that person?

1. Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First impressions making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face. Psychological Science, 17(7), 592-598.

2.  Regan, P. C. (1998). What if you can’t get what you want? Willingness to compromise ideal mate selection standards as a function of sex, mate value, and relationship context. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(12), 1294-1303.

3. Beck, A. T. (1988). Love is never enough: How couples can overcome misunderstandings, resolve conflicts, and solve relationship problems through cognitive therapy. New York: HarperCollins.

4. Rogers, C. R. and Sevens, B. (1980). Person to person: The problem of being human: A new trend in psychology. New York: Pocket Books.

Block‐Lerner, J., Adair, C., Plumb, J. C., Rhatigan, D. L., & Orsillo, S. M. (2007). The case for mindfulness‐based approaches in the cultivation of empathy: Does nonjudgmental, present‐moment awareness increase capacity for perspective‐taking and empathic concern?. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33(4), 501-516.

Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A two-factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: Exploratory analyses using 14‐Year longitudinal data. Family Process, 41(1), 83-96.

5. Reis, H. T. (1990). The role of intimacy in interpersonal relations. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 9(1), 15. doi: 10.1521/jscp.1990.9.1.15;


Red Flags: What to Watch Out for When You Are Dating


Swipe right—swipe left.  When it comes to the first few minutes of sizing up a potential partner, both men and women rely mainly on physical attractiveness.3.46 In addition, people overgeneralize from appearance, assuming that those who are attractive on the outside are also nicer on the inside, a phenomenon that has been termed the “what-is-beautiful-is-good-stereotype”.3.47 During the first 100 milliseconds of seeing a person’s face, not only is attractiveness judged, but also being judged is likeability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness.3.48

So, after you have met someone, how can you be sure this is the right one?  Are there some personality characteristics that you may not see initially but are ones that can stop a relationship from becoming a loving one?

You can assess these red flags by noticing how you feel when you are with the other person.  Do you feel controlled, inadequate, or criticized when you are with that person?

Some of the red flags to watch out for come from the scientific literature documenting impairments in thoughts and feelings regarding one’s self and one’s interpersonal relationships.3.90 We all might show some of these characteristics some of the time but it is the persistence and insistence of them that create problems in relationships.

Does he or she…

  • Want others to do things his/her way
  • Get bitterly upset when others disappoint him/her
  • Insist on being in charge
  • Get easily jealous or suspicious
  • Blame others when things go wrong
  • Get angry about even little things or perceived slights
  • Bully or flatter people into doing what he/she wants
  • Blow hot and cold
  • Get highly threatened by differences of opinion
  • Have difficulty acknowledging the other person’s point of view
  • Show a lack of awareness of the impact of his/her actions on others

If any of these characteristics are often present in a prospective partner, RUN!  You will not be able to change this person for the better because these personality characteristics have been shown to be stable throughout a long-term relationship.3.91 A person with these characteristics may begin, though, to recognize the difficulties they are causing and start to work on modifying them.  However, do you want to stick around long enough to possibly see these modifications?

But how do you find out about these characteristics during initial encounters, especially when the other person is trying to make a good impression and, perhaps hide them?  You could ask your partner how he or she would react in a given situation.  Ask, “If someone interrupted you while you trying to tell them something important, what would you feel and what would you do?”  Or “Tell me about a time when you were disappointed because someone did not think and act like the way you expected them to do.”  Another way to probe a little deeper is to ask about why previous relationships did not work out.  If your partner only mentions what was wrong with the other person, you may need to persist by asking what part they think they might have played in the relationship not working out.  Someone who has no insight into the way they may have triggered their partner is prone to create the same relationship that they created in the past.

So, what are the things you should look for in a potential partner? The next blog will address that issue.

3.46 Luo, S., & Zhang, G. (2009). What Leads to Romantic Attraction: Similarity, Reciprocity, Security, or Beauty? Evidence from a Speed‐Dating Study. Journal of Personality, 77(4),933-964.

3.47 Feingold, A. (1992). Good-looking people are not what we think. Psychological Bulletin,111(2),304. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.111.2.304

3.48 Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First impressions: Making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face. Psychological Science,17(7),592-598.

3.90 American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5). Washington, D.D.: American Psychiatric Press.

Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Normal personality assessment in clinical practice: The NEO Personality Inventory. Psychological Assessment, 4(1).

Jacobsberg, L., Perry, S., & Frances, A. (1995). Diagnostic agreement between the SCID-II screening questionnaire and the Personality Disorder Examination. Journal of Personality Assessment,65(3),428-433.

3.91 Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1988). Personality in adulthood: a six-year longitudinal study of self-reports and spouse ratings on the NEO Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,54(5),853.