Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Why Checklists Are Bad Idea When You Are Single And Dating

When dating, it's tempting to create a template for Mr. or Ms. Right.

She will have a well-defined career, long legs, blond hair and a penchant for coffeehouses.

He will have strong arms, nice teeth and a desire to travel.

Sounds good on paper, right?

But here's the problem with that approach: By honing in on what you think you want, you limit your chances for love. To paraphrase former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, there are unknown unknowns in war -- and also in love. You may not know what you want until you encounter it.

As a result, singles must open themselves up to the possibilities of love. Limiting yourself to a certain "type" only forestalls your happy ending.

There are many reasons singles cling to a checklist when dating. It offers a sense of control in an otherwise bewildering experience, and it can be a buffer against past hurts, too. We think things like:

• I will not be vulnerable again.

• I will move on from what didn't work out in the past by protecting against it in the future.

• Since my last lousy boyfriend was an athlete, I'll never date a jock again.

• Because my ex-girlfriend's family was such a nightmare, it's only children from here on out.

Of course, everyone has baggage when it comes to relationships. It's crucial to leave behind abusive or unhealthy patterns by becoming aware of them, possibly going to therapy and working to avoid getting in the same rut. But is a person's height, athletic interests or career really the most important thing?

That's where the majority of singles get stuck when looking for love. If we can be conscious about the real ways our past relationships have affected us, we can prevent them from having too much influence on the present.

A lot of our listmaking is the result of family and society's expectations. We are told who is a "good" partner based on superficial qualities. Many parents, though well-intentioned, want their children to find mates with qualities that make sense to them. They want the best for their child -- security -- but it can come at the cost of passion and truly following your heart. Marrying a lawyer or a model is not necessarily going to make everything OK. A much better recipe for love is figuring out core values that are important to you.

Everyone has their deal breakers. There are big ones, like religion or substance abuse, and subtler ones like intellectual curiosity or an affinity for socializing. I don't think it's possible to be a complete tabula rasa where love is concerned, but any list should be free of physical characteristics and have a minimum of three core values on it. Focus on possibilities, not expectations. Planning what someone will look like, who they will be and the color of your bridesmaids dresses has a way of squashing love's mysterious ways.

I recommend reading The Year of Yes by Maria Dahvana Headley. She agreed to go out with everyone who asked her for an entire year. Guess what happened at the end of it? She found true love. Life is stranger than fiction.

To all the singles out there: Don't let the dating grind get you down. Open your heart. Open your mind. And love, someday soon, will find you.

Laura Berman, Ph.D., is a couples therapist and director of Chicago's Berman Center.

Study dispels popular sexual behavior myths