If you are in the dating world, you are processing a lot of information. You are a researcher of sorts, making sense of a large amount of data. You are evaluating yourself, asking questions like:
- Am I emotionally ready for a relationship?
- How attractive am I to a potential romantic partner?
- How will I know when I have found “The One”?
You are evaluating your date, asking questions like:
- How attracted am I to them?
- Can I see myself building a life with them?
- Never mind that… Can I see myself having a second date with them?
There’s a lot going on! As you sit with all of this information, you need to discern the stuff that’s really important from the stuff that’s not so important. I want to bring your attention to what I think is the most important quality to look for in a potential romantic partner. This quality is not apparent on their Bumble profile, but as you will see below, you can find clues about the presence or absence of this quality even on your first date. This quality is a biggie! It is essential for the long-term viability of a relationship– a quality that both of you will need in order to create the foundation for a happy and healthy romantic relationship.
The most important quality? Relational self-awareness. Relational self-awareness is defined as the ability to take a curious stance vis a vis yourself. People who have relational self-awareness can do the following.
- They can talk about their earlier relational experiences and how they shape their relationships today.
- They can turn their attention inward and name what they are feeling (versus just acting out what they are feeling).
- They can view a relationship problem as a combination of “some stuff I did wrong” and “some stuff you did wrong.”
- They can listen to feedback about themselves without fighting back or running away. Or, perhaps more realistically, they can catch themselves as they start to fight back or run away and try again to listen with an open heart to the feedback.
If what you want is a long-term relationship/marriage, then finding someone with relational self-awareness is far more important than finding someone who “checks the boxes” that have to do with education level, income, height, or any of the myriad other things we concern ourselves with. That’s because long-term love is about choosing someone who will be by your side when the stuff hits the fan. When you’re in one of those less-than-fairy-tale moments, what you need is someone who will sit shoulder-to-shoulder, looking together with you at the problem you guys are facing.
So how can you assess someone’s level of relational self-awareness as you’re getting to know them? Ask whether they have read Loving Bravely! Just kidding. Sort of. For real, here are two strategies you can use in order to assess your date’s level of relational self-awareness.
#1. Watch Their Stimulus-Response Process
Our days are filled with moments (stimuli) in which we need to choose a response. Notice how your date responds to those inevitable awkward moments. For example: you’re out to dinner and the waiter brings them the wrong entrée; you’re driving somewhere and someone cuts them off; you’re at Target and the cashier forgets to hand them a receipt. When the “stuff” hits the fan, we can respond in one of three ways.
- Fighting—getting loud, blaming, and demanding.
- Fleeing—shutting down, feeling ashamed, running away, and getting walked all over.
- Studying the moment—pausing, gathering ourselves together, and finding a way to stand up for ourselves without putting others down.
For sure, all of us are prone to knee-jerk fight or flight reactions, but with relational self-awareness, we can choose that amazing third option. We can pause, regulate our emotions, and handle a situation in a way that we can meet our own needs without trampling all over someone else. If your date has relational self-awareness, you will see them ‘handle with care’ that awkward moment with the waiter or the driver or the cashier.
Why it matters how your date handles these minor frustrating moments? Because at some point, sooner or later, you are going to be the frustrating moment. You will do something they find annoying or disrespectful or weird. Instead of a partner who is going to blame you or silently retreat from you, I want you to build a life with someone who will say something like, “I’m having a hard time with what you just did. I really want to talk to you about it in a way that helps you listen to me, and I want to listen to you in a way that helps you to talk to me.” That’s relational self-awareness in action!
#2. Listen to How They Talk About Their Relationships, Especially Past Romantic Relationships
Another way you can get an early clue about the relational self-awareness of your date is by paying attention to how they talk about their relationships, especially their past romantic relationship. People who don’t have much relational self-awareness tell stories (especially love stories) that are full of blame and shame. They tend to cast themselves as victims and other people as suckers, losers, or fools. By contrast, individuals who are relationally self-aware tell love stories that have lots of shades of gray. Their stories include context (“It wasn’t the right time for us”) and generosity of intention (“She was suffering and therefore not able to connect with me in a healthy way”). I created a table to bring this idea to life:
|Shades of Gray||Lots of shades of gray.
“The timing wasn’t great for us.”
“We just weren’t a good fit.”
“I did some stuff wrong and he/she did some stuff wrong.”
|No shades of gray.
“People always screw you in the end.”
“Everyone is just looking out for themselves.”
|Characterization||Generosity of intention.
“He/she was struggling in addiction/pain/circumstance and not able to connect with me.”
“He/she was a loser/an addict/crazy.”
|Big Picture||Focus on growth.
“The relationship sucked but I learned a lot about myself.”
“I wish I knew then what I know now, but I focus on looking ahead.”
|Absence of growth.
“It was a waste of time.”
“I go screwed.”
So, as you sift through all of the ‘data’ that daters need to sift through, I invite you to hold onto the two tools. If your date sends back their under-cooked steak with a pause, some compassion, and a respectful request, you may be on the right track. And if your date talks about their ex with generosity of intention and shades of gray, then you ought to jump on the chance to schedule another date!