Look, I’ll just say it. Some people are really bad at picking romantic partners. What drives interpersonal attraction is often mysterious, hard to pin down. Perhaps it’s pheromones. Maybe it’s something within our genes deciding that we’d make good offspring with THAT PERSON OVER THERE (a phenomenon that strangely occurs even when it’s not biologically possible to bear children with a partner for whatever reason).
But whatever it is, I’ve felt that biochemical siren song myself. “Ohhh, look at them. They’re shiny.”
Things get a little soupy, a little hazy. And oh shit, you’re in love. Or in lust or whatever — for those of you sticklers who jealously guard the “love” label.
Anyway, it’s funny. Unless this biochemical reaction happens — and happens like BAM! right at the beginning — a lot of people will assume a person isn’t compatible with them.
“I just don’t like them that way.”
And this is fine. Everyone gets to choose who they date and who they don’t (any other system quickly devolves into a forced breeding incel hellscape). Consent is mandatory, people.
But I’ve noted many times when only using instinct to guide our decisions has led to bad outcomes. I’ve seen it a lot when I’m matchmaking and setting people up. Unless there’s an immediate spark on both sides, my charges are usually quick to abandon ship after a first date. Which is again, fine. A person’s right.
However, notably, on occasions when they didn’t, when they didn’t feel it at first but continued to go on another date or two, those setups have usually ended up being ones that blossomed into long-term relationships.
Why is that? It’s because the people involved were actually compatible on a values level, on an interpersonal level, even if they didn’t immediately feel it on an instinctual level. And given just a bit of time, that compatibility led to trust which sparked chemistry, mysteriously enough.
I know. Sounds pretty impossible. And I’d think so, too… if I hadn’t also experienced it myself.
Notably, I thought my husband was really cute when I met him — but boring. (I was wrong.) He simultaneously noted that I was colorful and dramatic. Crazy, basically. He thought I was crazy. And he wasn’t sure if it was the good kind of crazy or the bad kind. I was interesting but potentially a heartbreaker. (Fair.)
We were friends for about a year before we ever went on a date. As we were both polyamorous, we were both seeing quite a few other people during the time that we were friends and even once we started dating. During the time that we were friends and nothing more, we got to know one another and discovered that we actually had a lot in common.
He was colorful and dramatic on the inside, where it was tough for me to discover it (unless I got to know him well). And as he got to know me, he decided I was the good kind of crazy. The same kind that he was.
He became my best friend. We eventually dated. It went amazingly well. The rest is history.
At our wedding, friends related that we were both incredibly lucky to have one another. That we fit perfectly into one another’s lives.
The funny thing is: We never would have picked one another in a normal “gun to your head, go exclusive with this person or risk losing them forever, musical chairs” style selection system.
And as either of us didn’t have trouble finding someone who would date us, odds were bad that we would have both been single at the same time for long enough to actually realize that we should date one another.
Lowering or Raising Your Standards Is an Unhelpful Way to Frame Partner Selection
Sometimes I’ll talk with folks who are having a hard time finding partners, and I’ll note similar issues. They don’t know how to pick good partners. Their partner selection compass is broken. They either are finding no one at all to date and/or having disappointing dating experiences.
They’ll often ask me the same question: “Do you think I should lower my standards?”
And I’ll tell you what I always think: I think it’s the wrong question. For starters, it’s a weird way to talk about partner selection. One person isn’t objectively better than another person. They just aren’t.
I know, I know. Some people are going to read this and be like, “Okay, Page, what are you on? Clearly there’s a hierarchy.”
I can clearly remembering thinking in middle school (when people really started pairing up with any frequency) that when it came to people, you could rank them. That there was basically a hierarchy. Some kind of equation where you’d factor in things like looks, intelligence, money, special abilities, and popularity. You’d plug in all the variables, and you could come out with a kind of number that represented that person’s “value” as a romantic partner.
And the whole game, it seemed, was for people to date someone with as high a number as possible. Or something.
Some people really subscribe to this kind of belief system even as adults. And a lot of time and effort go into broadcasting that your number is high to other people (even after a person is ostensibly monogamously partnered). Conspicuous consumption, looking hot in public, etc.
My life has taken me all sorts of strange places I never thought I would go. And I’ll be honest: I’m in contact these days with some of the “cool kids.” People who are markedly more superficial than I could ever stomach being. Who have always subscribed to this way of viewing others because life has rewarded them for sticking to it.
They have the highest possible standards, for just about everything you could imagine.
And you know what’s striking? Their love lives are terrible. They usually are married to attractive and/or wealthy people, but they invariably do not like the person they’ve married. They’re miserable because of it. Spend a lot of time arguing.
And they seem practically mystified when they discover that my husband and I like each other a lot (and sad because they don’t have something like that themselves).
If What You’re Doing Isn’t Working, Examine Your Standards
Here’s the thing: It wasn’t that my standards weren’t high enough. It’s that I was looking at the wrong things. I was waiting for a lightning bolt to strike me from on high. I wanted love at first sight across a crowded room.
I wanted to know RIGHT AWAY that it was forever.
This was unrealistic. I had watched too many cheesy movies. It was actually better to get to know people first and figure out if my life would actually work with theirs.
Some people have other problems with their standards. I know someone who has decided he won’t date “anything less than a 9” (such a cringe-y way to put it), even though he’s arguably a 4 by that same superficial system, perhaps raised to a 5 or a 6 because he has a decent job (and that’s another variable in that same cringe-y formula).
Anyway, I don’t think lowering or raising your standards is the right way to look at it. Honestly, I know that people buy into this Dating Hierarchy theory, but following it — and even being a “winner” within its framework — doesn’t actually make people happy.
Examining your standards is better.
The reality is that you aren’t looking to find the best possible partner(s). You’re looking to find the best possible partner(s) for you. And the reality is also that you might not currently be a good judge of what that is.
If you’re having trouble finding good partners, this is what I’d advise: Examine your standards to see if you can figure out why your approach isn’t working. And consider acting counter to those standards. Even if it feels really freaking weird. (Because it probably will… until the moment that it doesn’t.)
As part of this, I’d also advise consulting a third party, a friend who isn’t afraid to give you harsh truth.
P.S. Don’t change your standards if you don’t want to. I’m not the boss of you or anything. This advice is only intended for people who are asking themselves or others if they should lower their standards.
Books by Page Turner: