Janine faced a big dating dilemma: Her boyfriend of eight months, Devin, was a nearly perfect match for her. Handsome, honest, considerate, loyal—the list of his positive attributes went on and on. Devin and Janine laughed together, shared many of the same goals, and communicated at a deep level.
So what was the problem? This man, so wonderful in every other way, simply could not keep a job. His résumé, if he ever compiled one, would be as long and varied as a gangster’s rap sheet.
“He’s a great guy, and I’ve dreamed about spending our lives together,” Janine said. “But there’s that one sticking point—steady employment. In fact, for Devin the term ‘steady employment’ is an oxymoron. Do I want to make a long-term commitment to someone I may end up supporting financially and whose serial job-hopping is bound to cause conflict?”
And then there’s Nate, a 36-year-old financial planner in San Diego, who had been dating Brittany for several months. He told friends he’d found his “dream woman” and was beginning to think she was the one. But then came the fateful night when Nate dropped by Brittany’s apartment to surprise her with flowers. She reluctantly invited him in, and he immediately understood her hesitation. Her place was a disaster—clothes scattered everywhere, dishes piled in the sink, magazines strewn about, mounds of unfolded laundry on the floor. Despite her excuses about being too busy to clean up, subsequent visits to her apartment always revealed the same disaster-area disarray. A fastidious fellow, Nate caught a vision of what life with Brittany might look like on a daily basis.
“Here was this amazing woman—smart, charming, accomplished…and a complete slob,” Nate said. “It’s possible she could improve with some encouragement and coaching. But it’s possible she wouldn’t. What then? Mr. Clean marries Miss Messy, and they live unhappily ever after?”
Maybe you can relate to Janine and Nate. You’re dating someone who is right in so many ways, but wrong in one significant way. Perhaps it’s a personal habit that drives you nuts: his total lack of manners at mealtime or her constant interruptions while you’re trying to talk. It could be a character issue that signals trouble: he drinks too much but shrugs it off as “no big deal” or she pouts and sulks to get her way. Whatever it is, you wonder if this “fatal flaw” might kill the relationship.
What should you do? Begin by asking yourself the following questions:
Is this a learned behavior that can change or a personality trait that probably won’t?
Nearly everyone has a few bad habits that can be beat with willpower, accountability, and encouragement. But relatively minor irritations are in a different category than ingrained personality traits, which are usually difficult (and sometimes impossible) to change. Clearly identify which type of issue you’re dealing with–one that’s possible to modify or one that will likely stay the same.
Does this shortcoming appear on your must-have or can’t-stand lists?If you have carefully identified the ten things you can’t live with and the ten things you can’t live without, then these lists should serve as a screening process. And if your partner’s flaw shows up, this should be a clear signal that this person isn’t right for you. That may sound cold hearted, but what good are your must-have and can’t-stand lists if nonnegotiable items become negotiable? What’s more, we can only imagine the number of divorces or troubled marriages that involve people who thought, This one thing really bothers me, but it’ll go away.
Is this a fault you are willing to live with? Making plans for a long-term relationship with someone you assume will change is a recipe for trouble. Sure, people grow and improve, but you should not base your future happiness on the assumption that your partner will be able to (or want to) change enough to satisfy your wishes. Of course, you may ultimately decide that you can live with your partner’s fault, but in doing so you’re making a deliberate, conscious choice.
The issue here is not about trying to find someone perfect—and a good thing, too, since there’s no such person on the face of the earth. The issue is about you being clear about what shortcomings in a partner you can live with and which you can’t. Give yourself the freedom to move on to other prospects — or fully embrace your lover, flaws and all.