I never insisted on a man who checked all the boxes. But once I saw myself as someone who deserved to be picky, the whole world changed.
“I’m done with men who don’t know what they want from life,” my friend Catherine told me when we were in our late 20s. “A guy can either pledge his undying love to me or hit the road.”
“But it takes forever for men to tell you how they feel,” I said.
At the time, I had been dating my boyfriend for nine months, but he still hadn’t told me he loved me. He did say, repeatedly, that he didn’t believe in marriage. As tired as I was of waiting for him to take our relationship seriously, I trusted that he’d grow up sooner or later.
“I’m not going out with anyone who makes less than $100K,” my friend Beth told me a few years later.
“That’s absurd!” I said.
At that point, I was living with a perpetually unemployed stoner. As tired as I was of hearing that my boyfriend wouldn’t even consider settling down until his career was more established, I couldn’t imagine kicking him to the curb based on his income-tax bracket.
But after that relationship ended, the fourth in a string of romantic failures, I could see that whatever I was doing, it wasn’t working. Instead of questioning my selection criteria though, I just assumed there was something wrong with me. Maybe I was too emotional or too needy. Maybe I needed to talk things through too much. Somehow, even though I had never used any selection criteria beyond attraction in choosing guys to date, I was the one who didn’t check all the boxes.
“Make a list,” my mother’s best friend, Jill, told me one day when I was visiting home. She pressed a finger into the table to emphasize her point. “Write down the traits you can’t live without. If a guy doesn’t have everything you want, don’t even think about dating him.”
As if it’s that easy! I thought. Dating wasn’t like shopping for a new car. I couldn’t just get all the features I wanted on the spot. And who would be so rigid and idealistic? After all, if I had been guided by a romantic checklist over the previous decade, I never would have dated half my exes. (I definitely would’ve steered clear of my latest man-child boyfriend, who rarely had a steady job and only set his alarm clock to watch live coverage of the Tour de France in the middle of the night.)
Come to think of it, maybe Jill had a point.
I’d always prided myself on being flexible about men. Love was ageless … and sometimes wageless. It could take the form of a shiny new Mercedes or a rusted out ’72 Impala with a trunk that doesn’t close. So why was I so surprised when one relationship after another broke down in the middle of the freeway, leaving me to weep into my hands until help arrived?
Somehow, I was picky about everything else in my life but men. I’d take months to decide whether or not to buy a pair of jeans. It took me a full year to choose the right rescue dog. But when it came to guys, I would always leap before I looked.
Maybe I did need to be more clinical in my assessment of potential life partners. I’d already invested so much time and energy on men who not only had no intention of marrying me but also who, if I really thought about it, weren’t up to my standards in the first place! It wasn’t like I was getting dumped time after time. Once I’d settle in and make a logical assessment, I didn’t want to marry them either.
So when I got back to Los Angeles, for the first time in my life, I made a list of what I was looking for in a man. It was a short list. I wanted a guy whose age was within eight years of mine, who was gainfully employed and enthusiastic about his career. And the most important item: I wanted someone who understood the value of honest communication. I’d spent so many years with guys who never wanted to talk about their emotions. Whenever I brought up complicated, heavy subjects, they got nervous. I tried for so long to accept that men don’t like to talk things out the way women do. But it was frustrating and lonely to feel like I had so much to give, but what I had to give involved a lot of talking. I wanted to share my passions, my philosophies, my big ideas. But I always ended up feeling like a tedious teacher trying to browbeat her fidgety student. That had to change. I couldn’t stand to once again feel I was offering up my best and no one would take it.
I had also dated enough by then to know that superficial traits like a pretty smile and nice laugh weren’t going to see me through the tough times. I’d go into each relationship fixated on some combination of a man’s pretty eyes and the fact that we both loved dogs, and I’d come out of it bothered by my boyfriend’s habit of sleeping until noon or storming out in the middle of an argument. So much of what works or doesn’t work in a relationship is revealed in the day to day, after all. But you don’t have to wait until you’re living together to understand a guy’s personal beliefs and ideas about how he wants to live. Are your habits in line? When you explain that something is important to you, does he take your word for it and try to respect your needs, or does he ask you to justify any feelings you have that he views as irrational? You don’t need to read tea leaves or peer into a crystal ball to see the future with most guys. Their actions will tell you exactly what kind of a long-term partner they’ll be — if you have the courage to step back and observe the truth with clear eyes.
It’s natural enough to want to list superficial traits on your relationship checklist. But instead of writing down “gorgeous” or “loves life” on a dating profile, it might make more sense to list behaviors and attitudes. Examples: “Works hard at his job but knows how to relax when he gets home” or “has egalitarian notions of marriage” or even “prefers binge-watching The Walking Dead to going clubbing.”
Making my list felt like a risk. I felt vulnerable admitting that I wanted a serious boyfriend. Wasn’t it dangerous to want something so badly when I had no control over the outcome? But in the weeks after writing my checklist, something shifted inside me. I felt more hopeful, more in control of what happened next. I knew, at last, I was either going to find what I was looking for or I was going to be alone and proud of myself for not settling for less than I deserved.
And I could finally see that not having a checklist meant that I’d presented myself to every guy as someone who was perfect for him, easygoing and up for whatever. Instead of falling into that trap again, I was going to put all my flaws and needs and desires on the table early on … maybe not on the first date but definitely within the first two months. And if I scared a guy off, so be it.
I have to admit, there were suddenly far fewer candidates milling about. I remember going to a wedding one weekend after I wrote my checklist and seeing clearly that none of the men hitting on me were right for me at all. One (incredibly charming!) guy was too emotionally distant. Another (funny!) guy drank too much and didn’t have a career he cared about. Another (very sexy!) guy smoked, lived across the country, and seemed temperamental. As disappointing as it was not to have any romantic intrigue in my life, it was refreshing to see the playing field clearly for maybe the first time ever. I drove home from that trip feeling grateful that this time, I wouldn’t be leaping into another dead-end relationship with the wrong guy. It was empowering to realize I could guarantee my own happiness, just by refusing to settle.
And a few months later, I met a man who not only held my interest but also checked lots of dreamy boxes that weren’t even on my list. He was handsome, he had a career he loved, and he spent our first date talking my ear off, demonstrating both his intellectual interests and, more simply, his interest in talking, period. When he told me about his family and past relationships, he expressed his values clearly, but he also acknowledged his limitations. He not only agreed to split the check but also greeted my strident feminist views as if it would be absurd for me to feel otherwise. And it became clear that at heart we were both homebodies with matching TV-marathon-loving tendencies. It’s these kinds of similarities and habits that have made our 10 years together so gratifying.
What has mattered most of all, though, was the key item on my list: My now-husband understood how important honest communication is to building a great life with another person. When either of us feels frustrated or angry, we talk it out until we feel better. That shared belief has helped me immensely: I accept my flaws and take care of myself in ways I never did before, thanks to the fact that I can admit my weaknesses to my husband and know that he won’t run away from me when I do. I’m a calmer, more generous, more open person as a result.
It seems so obvious that I never should’ve settled for less. But it can take a lot of trial and error to figure out the most obvious things. We all need to forgive ourselves for bungling our way toward true love.
This article was originally published as “What You Should Really Look for in a Guy” in the March 2016 issue of Cosmopolitan US.
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