I spent most of my pre-married life wondering, “How will I know if someone is THE ONE?” Particularly after I did not, as was promised by my highly misguided youth group, marry my first boyfriend, or my second, or any number of subsequent beaus. (Thank you, Jesus and/or venerable Chinese ancestors, for those unanswered prayers.)
I’m now inclined to believe that you don’t meet THE ONE so much as you choose your one. (Or several, if you’re poly.) You choose to show up for that relationship every day, as does your partner. If someone chooses not to show up or chooses to be unsafe toward the other person, the relationship is over. So how do you know if any particular person is a prudent choice?
The thing is, you may not fully know if someone is solid partner material until you’re already in a relationship. (Life’s not fair, I know.) The stressors that bring out someone’s true colors just don’t tend to show up until you’ve been with someone awhile, had to deal with their family, tried to build IKEA furniture together, maybe popped out a few kids and had 3am whisper-fights over whose turn it is to get up with the baby.
Having navigated an excessive number of life stresses in our nearly four years of marriage, I feel mildly qualified to offer this list of questions to ask about your partner. (And yourself, let’s be fair.) I am not a marriage or family therapist, just someone who is married and committed to our family. When I was single and trying to crack the code of marriage, I observed a lot of relationships around me…and also made a lot of relationship mistakes. Here’s what I’ve learned to consider:
What happens when their basic needs aren’t being met?
My now-husband learned pretty early on in our relationship to make sure I had snacks when we were going to be out for awhile. He even changed the timing of his proposal because he “thought I might be too tired later.” (He probably wasn’t wrong.) Does your partner get really hangry, or super snappish when they’re tired? Most people do to a certain extent, so it’s not a matter of finding someone who is happy to survive on air. It’s just about knowing how they respond when they’re hungry or sleep-deprived, and neither taking it too personally nor allowing the behavior to get abusive.
How do they handle stress?
If you’re not sure how your partner handles stress, try trimming a cat’s toenails or chaperoning a preschool trip to the zoo or shopping for a mattress together. But seriously, it’s important to know how your partner’s default stress responses will interact with your own. When life feels out of control, I fixate on superficial things I can control to help me feel less powerless, like writing out complex schedules, making lists, and bossing everyone around. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what my husband does. So we’ve had to compromise and prioritize what really needs to happen when things are stressful. (Reorganizing my sock drawer doesn’t make the cut.)
How do they treat their money, possessions, and living space?
The way people interact with their material and monetary resources is often a proxy for what they value. I recommend taking the MoneyType quiz to get a more objective view of how you and your partner treat money. Perhaps you value money for the security it brings you and so you tend to save money, but your partner may value money as a way to help others and enjoy giving money to charity and buying gifts for loved ones. You will probably need to negotiate a budget that keeps both of those values in mind.
Your attitude toward money may overlap into your attitude toward your home and possessions. If security is important to you, you might have a tendency to hold on to things after their usefulness has passed. (Heyooo children of immigrants!) If you use money or objects to obtain pleasure, you may find yourself awash in impulse purchases or redecorating on a whim more often than you can afford to. Either way, knowing these tendencies ahead of time will allow you to stay ahead of two major argument topics in most committed relationships: money and housekeeping.
How do they react to being wrong or making a mistake?
Now we’re getting into behaviors that indicate a person’s character and this is where my opinions start to have more of an edge. Humility is a pretty important quality for being in a relationship (and just for being a functional human). How does your partner react when they’ve screwed up? Do they try to cover up, gaslight, or blame someone else? Because that’s what children do, and you don’t want to live with an overgrown child. Or do they apologize and try to learn from their mistakes and make things right? Nobody’s perfect, so it’s important that you and your partner know how to deal with imperfection productively.
How do they react to different opinions or experiences?
Empathy is another essential quality in a healthy relationship. One way to gauge someone’s empathy level is how they react to opinions or experiences that are outside their comfort zone. Can your partner assess differing opinions without resorting to personal attacks? Do they listen well? Are they open to doing things a different way, or at least accepting of other people’s right to do things that work for them? This does not mean rolling over and accepting white supremacy rallies as “someone else’s opinion.” You can be empathetic and still stand up for what you think is right and wrong.
How do they react to the needs of others?
Obviously you want a partner who is responsive to your needs and those of other loved ones. But let me tell you this now…if you have children or have to care for aging parents or work in a caring profession like healthcare or education, your level of neededness will reach a new order of magnitude. Some people get codependent toward their partner, parents, or children. Some people run away from their responsibilities. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, leaning toward one side or the other depending on the situation. The most important thing is whether you and your partner can balance self-care (which can only come from within), partner-care, and other-care. I believe in very few absolutes but I think that order of priorities is basically non-negotiable.
How do they adapt to change?
I have always struggled with change. My eating disorder usually flares during transitions between life stages or physical locations. Other people can jump right into a new situation and thrive. Watch how your partner behaves when they start a new job, take a vacation, or change part of their routine. Do they resist and complain, fret and worry, or seek to learn or at least just roll with the punches? It’s okay for someone to resist or resent change (within reason) as long as you know ahead of time and can try to make some accommodations. We’ve tried to minimize the number of simultaneous and sequential life transitions that we go through, to the degree that we can control any of that, of course. And we’re learning (somewhat belatedly) the importance of self-care during transition periods.
On what have they significantly changed their perspective?
Speaking of change, I personally think it’s important to have at least one topic on which someone has significantly changed their opinion at some point in their life. We’re all stamped with the beliefs, biases, and habits of the people who raised us, but those people were the product of a different time and world. They can’t be right about everything. How willing is your partner to question their own opinions when presented with new evidence? Life is going to keep changing. It could get pretty miserable to be with someone who can’t or won’t keep up.
What was their biggest stressor as a child?
Maybe your partner experienced a lot of pressure to achieve as a child. Or they constantly felt lonely or ostracized. Maybe they sought a parent’s approval and didn’t get enough. Whatever consistently caused them negative emotions as a child is likely to remain a stressor into adulthood. The high achiever child may become a workaholic or yearn to escape the rat race completely. Lonely, approval-seeking children may cling to their partner or push them away expecting to abandoned anyway. Physical stressors like food or housing insecurity may show up later in life and even in subsequent generations. The point of knowing about your partner’s adverse childhood experiences is not to excuse their problematic or abusive behavior. But knowledge leads to understanding, understanding leads to empathy, and empathy leads to change.
How were they parented?
And finally, we arrive at the cornerstone of modern psychotherapy: family of origin. The way someone was parented will either directly or indirectly echo into what they expect from their partner and how they themselves parent. Most people, at least without great effort and/or extensive therapy, will default to patterns learned in childhood. Some do the exact same thing their parents did, some do the polar opposite, and most probably alternate between both.
Take a look at the levels of emotional closeness and flexibility that your partner experienced in their family of origin. As always, these factors lay on a spectrum and there can certainly be too much of a good thing. Flexibility may seem like a good trait but children from overly flexible families may feel insecure because they lacked boundaries and routines. Closeness is important but so is space and independence. It may be tempting to blame your partner’s family of origin for all their faults. But as adults, we all have the ability to make different choices than the ones we lived with as children.
How (not) to use these questions
You’ll notice that none of these are yes/no questions. Generally, there are no wrong answers, besides, say, abuse or psychopathy. These aren’t really meant to be gatekeeper questions. Each person has to decide for themselves what is acceptable. Ideally, your partner’s personality and behavior bring out the better sides of your personality and behavior. But sometimes partners feed into each others’ less healthy patterns. That’s not always a dealbreaker (though it can be), but being aware of it is the first step in working through those issues.
If you are considering marriage or even just in a committed relationship, these ten questions can reveal a lot about your partner and yourself. I’m a huge fan of couples counseling at any and every relationship stage. Healthy relationships take work, and sometimes the work can be difficult and painful. But if your partnership is healthy, that work will feel productive and not like drudgery.