Go for the Life Partner, Not the Prom Date
In her new book, “How to Not Die Alone,” Harvard-trained behavioral scientist-turned dating coach, and Hinge’s Director of Relationship Science, Logan Ury, helps readers find and keep the relationship of their dreams by making better decisions along the way.
The prom date vs. the life partner
Many of us don’t date for long-term viability. I call this pursuing The Prom Date. What’s an ideal prom date? Someone who looks great in pictures, gives you a night full of fun, and makes you look cool in front of your friends. Many of us finished high school more than a decade ago, and yet we’re still using the same rubric to evaluate potential partners. Do you really want to marry the Prom Date? To worry if your partner is going to help you take care of your aging parents? Or show up to your kid’s parent-teacher conference? Or nurse you back to health after contracting a case of Montezuma’s revenge?
Those probably aren’t the questions you ask yourself when you first meet someone. The answers have little bearing on whether you want to kiss the person or go out with them again. (And who wants to think about diarrhea on a first date!?) But when you’re looking for a long-term partner, you want someone who will be there for you during the highs and the lows. Someone you can rely on. Someone to make decisions with. The Life Partner.
There are many people with whom you can share a tryst but far fewer with whom you can build a life. When you’re thinking about who to marry, don’t ask yourself: What would a love story with this person look like? Instead, ask: Can I make a life with this person? That’s the fundamental distinction.
But you’re not seventeen anymore. If you really are seeking a long-term relationship with a committed partner, you need to stop looking for a Prom Date and start seeking a Life Partner.
What we get wrong about what matters
In addition to coaching, I also work as a matchmaker and set my clients up on dates. As a matchmaker, I’ve met with dozens of people to learn what they’re looking for in a partner. Hundreds have filled out the matchmaking form on my website to join “Logan’s List.” Through this process, I’ve collected enough data to understand what people think matters most in a serious partner. We can compare that to what the academic field of relationship science tells us actually matters for long-term relationship success.
We can thank John Gottman for many of these relationship science insights. He spent many years studying romantic relationships. He and his colleague Robert Levenson brought couples into an observational research laboratory dubbed the “Love Lab” by the media. There, he recorded them discussing their relationship. He asked couples to share the story of how they met and then recount a recent fight. He even invited couples to spend a weekend in an apartment he’d decked out with cameras to observe how they interacted during everyday moments.
Years after they participated in the apartment study, Gottman followed up with the couples to check on their relationships. They fell into two camps: the “masters,” couples who were still happily married; and the “disasters,” couples who had either broken up or remained together unhappily. He studied the original tapes of these two types of couples to learn what patterns separated the masters from the disasters.
When we look at Gottman’s findings, and the work of other relationship scientists, we can see clearly which qualities contribute to long-term relationship success. In other words, the research tells us what makes a good Life Partner. However, these are not the traits my matchmaking clients tend to ask for. Instead, they focus on short-term desirability—or the characteristics of a good Prom Date.
What matters less than we think
Not only do we undervalue the qualities that matter for long-term relationships, we overvalue irrelevant ones. People tend to fixate on certain superficial characteristics and ignore the far more important factors that are correlated with long-term relationship happiness (more on those in a moment).
Superficial qualities like looks and money matter less for long-term relationship success than people think they do because lust fades and people adapt to their circumstances. The same goes for similar personalities and similar hobbies.
What matters more than we think
When I work with clients, I rarely hear them say their number one goal is to find someone who’s emotionally stable. Or good at making hard decisions. Sometimes they’ll mention kindness, but usually after telling me their height minimum and maximum. And yet these are all examples of qualities that relationship scientists have found contribute much more to long-term relationship success than superficial traits or shared interests.
It’s not that people don’t know that this stuff matters; rather, they just tend to underestimate the value of these attributes when deciding whom to date. (One reason is that these qualities can be hard to measure. They may be discernible only after spending time with someone. This also explains why dating apps focus on the easier-to-measure, matter-less-than-you-think traits.) If you want to find a Life Partner, look for someone with the following traits: loyalty, kindness, emotional stability, and a growth mindset. You want a person with whom you can grow, make hard decisions, and argue with constructively.
Leaving the prom date at the prom
As you’ve seen, the things that matter less than we think for long-term relationship success tend to be superficial traits that are easy to discern when you first meet someone. And the things that matter more usually reveal themselves only when you’re in a relationship or have gone on at least a few dates. That’s why you have to intentionally shift your approach in order to focus on what really matters.
Excerpt from How to Not Die Alone: The Surprising Science That Will Help You Find Love by Logan Ury. Copyright © 2021 by Logan Ury. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y. All rights reserved.