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3 things to watch out for when you're trying to pick the right life partner.

Aka how to avoid a frenzy of big decisions for bad reasons and messing up the most important decision of your life.

This post was originally published on Wait But Why.

To a frustrated single person, life can often feel like this:


And at first glance, research seems to back this up, suggesting that married people are, on average, happier than single people and much happier than divorced people.

But a closer analysis reveals that if you split up “married people” into two groups based on marriage quality, “people in self-assessed poor marriages are fairly miserable, and much less happy than unmarried people, and people in self-assessed good marriages are even more happy than the literature reports.”

In other words, here’s what’s happening in reality:

Dissatisfied single people should actually consider themselves in a neutral, fairly hopeful position.

A single person who would like to find a great relationship is one step away from it, with their to-do list reading: “Find a great relationship.” People in unhappy relationships, on the other hand, are three leaps away, with a to-do list of: “Go through a soul-crushing break-up. Emotionally recover. Find a great relationship.”

Not as bad when you look at it that way, right?

All the research on how vastly happiness varies between happy and unhappy marriages makes perfect sense, of course. It’s your life partner.

Thinking about how overwhelmingly important it is to pick the right life partner, though, is like thinking about how huge the universe really is or how terrifying death really is: It’s too intense to internalize the reality of it, so we just don’t think about it that hard and remain in slight denial about the magnitude of the situation.

Unlike death and the universe’s size, picking a life partner is fully in your control.

It's critical to be entirely clear on how big of a deal the decision really is and to thoroughly analyze the most important factors in making it.

So, how big of a deal is it?

Well, start by subtracting your age from 90. If you live a long life, that’s about the number of years you’re going to spend with your current or future life partner, give or take a few. No matter who you are, that’s a lot of time — and almost the entirety of the rest of your one existence.

(Sure, people get divorced, but you don’t think you will. A recent study shows that 86% of young adults assume their current or future marriage will be forever, and I doubt older people feel much differently. So we’ll proceed under that assumption.)

And when you choose a life partner, you’re choosing a lot of things.

You're choosing your parenting partner and someone who will deeply influence your children, your eating companion for about 20,000 meals, your travel companion for about 100 vacations, your primary leisure time and retirement friend, your career therapist, and someone whose day you’ll hear about 18,000 times.

Given that this is by far the most important thing in life to get right, how is it possible that so many good, smart, otherwise-logical people end up choosing a life partnership that leaves them dissatisfied and unhappy?

It turns out that there are a bunch of factors working against us:

1. People tend to be bad at knowing what they want from a relationship.

Studies have shown people to be generally bad, when single, at predicting what later turn out to be their actual relationship preferences. One study found that speed daters questioned about their relationship preferences usually prove themselves wrong just minutes later with what they show to prefer in the actual event.

This shouldn’t be a surprise — in life, you usually don’t get good at something until you’ve done it a bunch of times. Unfortunately, not many people have a chance to be in more than a few, if any, serious relationships before they make their big decision. There’s just not enough time. And given that a person’s partnership persona and relationship needs are often quite different from the way they are as a single person, it’s hard as a single person to really know what you want or need from a relationship.

2. Society has it all wrong and gives us terrible advice.

→ Society encourages us to stay uneducated and let romance be our guide.

If you’re running a business, conventional wisdom states that you’re a much more effective business owner if you study business in school, create well thought-out business plans, and analyze your business’s performance diligently. This is logical, because that’s the way you proceed when you want to do something well and minimize mistakes.

But if someone went to school to learn about how to pick a life partner and take part in a healthy relationship, if they charted out a detailed plan of action to find one, and if they kept their progress organized rigorously in a spreadsheet, society says they’re A) an over-rational robot, B) way too concerned about this, and C) a huge weirdo.

When it comes to dating, society frowns upon thinking too much about it, instead opting for things like relying on fate, going with your gut, and hoping for the best. If a business owner took society’s dating advice for her business, she’d probably fail, and if she succeeded, it would be partially due to good luck — and that’s how society wants us to approach dating.

Society places a stigma on intelligently expanding our search for potential partners.

In a study on what governs our dating choices more, our preferences or our current opportunities, opportunities wins hands down — our dating choices are “98% a response ... to market conditions and just 2% immutable desires. Proposals to date tall, short, fat, thin, professional, clerical, educated, uneducated people are all more than nine-tenths governed by what’s on offer that night.”

In other words, people end up picking from whatever pool of options they have, no matter how poorly matched they might be to those candidates. The obvious conclusion to draw here is that outside of serious socialites, everyone looking for a life partner should be doing a lot of online dating, speed dating, and other systems created to broaden the candidate pool in an intelligent way.

But good old society frowns upon that, and people are often still timid to say they met their spouse on a dating site. The respectable way to meet a life partner is by dumb luck, by bumping into them randomly or being introduced to them from within your little pool. Fortunately, this stigma is diminishing with time, but that it’s there at all is a reflection of how illogical the socially accepted dating rulebook is.

Society rushes us.

In our world, the major rule is to get married before you’re too old — and “too old” varies from 25–35, depending on where you live. The rule should be “whatever you do, don’t marry the wrong person,” but society frowns much more upon a 37-year-old single person than it does an unhappily married 37-year-old with two children. It makes no sense — the former is one step away from a happy marriage, while the latter must either settle for permanent unhappiness or endure a messy divorce just to catch up to where the single person is.

3. Our biology is doing us no favors.

→ Human biology evolved a long time ago and doesn’t understand the concept of having a deep connection with a life partner for 50 years.

When we start seeing someone and feel the slightest twinge of excitement, our biology gets into “okay let’s do this” mode and bombards us with chemicals designed to get us to mate (lust), fall in love (the Honeymoon Phase), and then commit for the long run (attachment). Our brains can usually override this process if we’re just not that into someone, but for all those middle-ground cases where the right move is probably to move on and find something better, we often succumb to the chemical roller coaster and end up getting engaged.

→ Biological clocks are a bitch.

For a woman who wants to have biological children with her husband, she has one very real limitation in play, which is the need to pick the right life partner by 40, give or take. This is just a shitty fact and makes an already hard process one notch more stressful. Still, if it were me, I’d rather adopt children with the right life partner than have biological children with the wrong one.


So when you take a bunch of people who aren’t that good at knowing what they want in a relationship, surround them with a society that tells them they have to find a life partner but that they should under-think, under-explore, and hurry up, and combine that with biology that drugs us as we try to figure it out and promises to stop producing children before too long ... what do you get?

A frenzy of big decisions for bad reasons and a lot of people messing up the most important decision of their life.

Let’s take a look at some of the common types of people who fall victim to all of this and end up in unhappy relationships.

Meet "Overly Romantic Ronald."

Overly Romantic Ronald’s downfall is believing that love is enough reason on its own to marry someone. Romance can be a great part of a relationship, and love is a key ingredient in a happy marriage, but without a bunch of other important things, it’s simply not enough.

The overly romantic person repeatedly ignores the little voice that tries to speak up when he and his girlfriend are fighting constantly or when he seems to feel much worse about himself these days than he used to before the relationship, shutting the voice down with thoughts like “Everything happens for a reason and the way we met couldn’t have just been coincidence” and “I’m totally in love with her, and that’s all that matters” — once an overly romantic person believes he’s found his soul mate, he stops questioning things, and he’ll hang onto that belief all the way through his 50 years of unhappy marriage.


Meet "Fear-Driven Frida."

Fear is one of the worst possible decision-makers when it comes to picking the right life partner. Unfortunately, the way society is set up, fear starts infecting all kinds of otherwise-rational people, sometimes as early as the mid-20s. The types of fear our society (and parents, and friends) inflict upon us — fear of being the last single friend, fear of being an older parent, sometimes just fear of being judged or talked about — are the types that lead us to settle for a not-so-great partnership. The irony is that the only rational fear we should feel is the fear of spending the latter two-thirds of life unhappily, with the wrong person — the exact fate the fear-driven people risk because they’re trying to be risk-averse.


Meet "Externally Influenced Ed."

Externally Influenced Ed lets other people play way too big of a part in the life partner decision. The choosing of a life partner is deeply personal, enormously complicated, different for everyone, and almost impossible to understand from the outside, no matter how well you know someone. As such, other people’s opinions and preferences really have no place getting involved, other than an extreme case involving mistreatment or abuse.

The saddest example of this is someone breaking up with a person who would have been the right life partner because of external disapproval or a factor the chooser doesn’t actually care about (religion is a common one) but feels compelled to stick to for the sake of family insistence or expectations.

It can also happen the opposite way, where everyone in someone’s life is thrilled with his relationship because it looks great from the outside, and even though it’s not actually that great from the inside, Ed listens to others over his own gut and ties the knot.


Meet "Shallow Sharon."

Shallow Sharon is more concerned with the on-paper description of her life partner than the inner personality beneath it. There are a bunch of boxes that she needs to have checked — things like his height, job prestige, wealth level, accomplishments, or maybe a novelty item like being foreign or having a specific talent.

Everyone has certain on-paper boxes they’d like checked, but a strongly ego-driven person prioritizes appearances and résumés above even the quality of her connection with her potential life partner when weighing things.

If you want a fun new term, a significant other whom you suspect was chosen more because of the boxes they checked than for their personality underneath is a “Scantron boyfriend” or a “Scantron wife,” etc. — because they correctly fill out all the bubbles. I’ve gotten some good mileage out of that one.


Meet "Selfish Stanley."

Selfish Stanley come in three sometimes-overlapping varieties:

1. The “My Way or the Highway” Type

This person cannot handle sacrifice or compromise. She believes her needs and desires and opinions are simply more important than her partner’s, and she needs to get her way in almost any big decision. In the end, she doesn’t want a legitimate partnership, she wants to keep her single life and have someone there to keep her company.

This person inevitably ends up with at best a super easy-going person, and at worst, a pushover with a self-esteem issue, and sacrifices a chance to be part of a team of equals, almost certainly limiting the potential quality of her marriage.

2. The Main Character

The Main Character’s tragic flaw is being massively self-absorbed. He wants a life partner who serves as both his therapist and biggest admirer, but is mostly uninterested in returning either favor. Each night, he and his partner discuss their days, but 90% of the discussion centers on his day — after all, he’s the main character of the relationship. The issue for him is that by being incapable of tearing himself away from his personal world, he ends up with a sidekick as his life partner, which makes for a pretty boring 50 years.

3. The Needs-Driven

Everyone has needs, and everyone likes those needs to be met, but problems arise when the meeting of needs — she cooks for me, he’ll be a great father, she’ll make a great wife, he’s rich, she keeps me organized, he’s great in bed — becomes the main grounds for choosing someone as a life partner. Those listed things are all great perks, but that’s all they are: perks. And after a year of marriage, when the needs-driven person is now totally accustomed to having her needs met and it’s no longer exciting, there better be a lot more good parts of the relationship she’s chosen or she’s in for a dull ride.

The main reason most of the above types end up in unhappy relationships is that they’re consumed by a motivating force.

That force doesn’t take into account the reality of what a life partnership is and what makes it a happy thing.

So what makes a happy life partnership? Visit Wait But Why for Part 2 of this post.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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