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Checklists can wreck relationships

As romantic as the notion of a soul mate sounds, research suggests that this very belief may not be such a good idea.
As romantic as the notion of a soul mate sounds, research suggests that this very belief may not be such a good idea. tlee@newsobserver.com

You’ve seen the headlines online: 10 Traits Your Ideal Soul Mate Should Have, 36 Questions That Will Make You Fall in Love. They’re click-worthy, for sure. And we’ll admit: The idea that following a formula or writing a checklist can help you find your one true love sounds pretty awesome.

“Relationships and love are incredibly complicated and can bring with them uncertainty, so it can seem safer to follow a blueprint,” says Melody J. Wilding, a therapist who works with clients navigating the dating world.

While there’s nothing wrong with thinking about traits you like in your partner, the blogosphere can make love sound a lot simpler than it really is. Experts worry believing in rigid rules may make you more anxious, potentially causing you to overanalyze (even wreck) something that was working. Remember:

1 Soul mates are a rarity

As romantic as the notion of a soul mate sounds, research suggests that this very belief may not be such a good idea. People who believe they’re meant to “click” immediately with their significant other – or else move on and find someone new – tend to be less committed to a partner, especially when inevitable difficulties arise. Further, the belief that love can be framed as a “perfect union between two halves” may hurt relationship satisfaction.

2 Lists can be limiting

Know that your must-have qualities may be setting you up for romantic failure. “When you start sizing up potential love interests or comparing your bond to some perfect paradigm, you’re setting yourself up to overlook all the positive parts of your current or future relationships,” Wilding explains.

“If you’re constantly evaluating how someone meets your checklist ... often you end up less interested simply because you’re closed off to possibility.”

3 Perfect relationship? No such thing

“People have the misguided assumption that when they find their ideal match, everything is going to be effortless – no fights, no problems,” says Psychology Today blogger Jeremy Nicholson. This can cause us to walk away from potentially awesome pairings the second we sniff impending difficulty.

4 Stay realistic

As anyone who’s ever been in a long-term duo can attest, difficulties are par for the course. Even if you find someone who loves “Downton Abbey,” eating ramen and training for triathlons as much as you do, you’re still going to have arguments. And the more we cling to the idea that everything’s going to be smooth all the time, the more likely we are to freak out when issues arise, says Tina Tessina, psychotherapist and author of “Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences.”

Despite the well-meaning intent of articles that list “10 secrets of blissfully happy couples,” their side effects may be to drive home our own sense of incompetence – or convince us that our partner’s foibles are grounds for a breakup.

5 The bright side of ‘rules’

We’re not saying relationship advice is pointless. There are plenty of research-backed tips that can help you manage conflicts in your relationships, Nicholson says. Important skills include learning how to say “I’m sorry” (and accept responsibility for wrongdoing), how to show an interest in a partner by responding to his or her “bids” for connection, and how to accept a partner’s need for personal space.

Even regularly trying new things with your mate (like seeing an action movie if your go-to is rom-com) has been shown to raise relationship satisfaction and increase attraction and affection. Yet another reminder that “you’re not locked into a set script where there’s only one right way to do things,” Nicholson says.

6 When to pack it in

All said, there are some red flags that indicate going separate ways may be best. Emotional abuse, for starters. If you constantly feel like you’re walking on eggshells around your partner and he or she repeatedly puts you down or tries to control your behavior with silent treatments or sarcasm, be aware that this is not OK.

If your partner remains unwilling to address your concerns, you may want to seek professional help to enable you to safely distance yourself from a mate.

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