A mighty dilemma….

In the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about relationships that stray from the path of  ‘normal’. Specifically, what to do when the solution to keep a relationship on track strays from the Western culture norms we’ve grown up aspiring to.

A question I keep coming back to is what draws us into a relationship with a particular person? And are there better ways of choosing a partner in the first place? Could we be smarter in assessing a relationship’s success at the starting point to give ourselves better odds of remaining successful for longer?


If you were asked to compile a list of your Top 10 criteria for a successful relationship – what would your 1-10 include? And would the list be different if you had made it 10 years ago? 20 years ago? Or back even further – depending on how old you are now?

Until my early 40s, I had a fairly idealistic view of what constituted a successful marriage. Upon reflection, I think my ‘idea’ of what a relationship should be was heavily influenced by main stream media – ranging from the love will conquer all (and deliver you a prince) rhetoric of Disney, through to fabulous career girls who had it all – ‘Working Girl’ style.

In hindsight, as an option or alternative, I wish there had been an equally loud voice talking about the practicalities of relationships and how to plan for them at the beginning, rather than stumbling across this challenge when perhaps a relationship is much more difficult from which to extricate oneself.

If I had compiled my list in my 20s, these would have been what I was ticking off my list when meeting potential suitors:

  1. As close as possible in looks to Tom Cruise (unfortunately this is quite serious and resulted in one relationship).
  2. Lives in a relatively affluent suburb.
  3. Likes going out dancing to clubs.
  4. Will buy me amazingly thoughtful presents for my birthday. (as a public declaration of how much he loves me)
  5. Will arrange amazingly thoughtful events for my birthday. (ditto)
  6. Will send flowers to my work on Valentine’s Day. (ditto)
  7. Chooses to spend time with me over his friends on nearly all occasions. (ditto)
  8. Wears fashionable clothes.
  9. Has friends and family I get along with.
  10. Gets along with my friends and family.

I won’t bore you with the changing lists I believe I would have compiled at 30 and 40, but here’s the top 10 as I start the decade of my 50s.

  1. Will share household chores. No whinging.
  2. Likes getting to the airport in enough time to deal with unforeseen delays and to enjoy a coffee or glass of wine before the plane takes off (None of this ‘just getting to the airport in enough time to dash through check-in and security and just make it to the plane as the gate doors are closing. It’s not a sport and I don’t like playing sport that much anyway.)
  3. Gives me space to be me. (That’s a ‘moveable feast’ – but one he can accommodate)
  4. Cooks just as much as I do. I’m no-one’s live in chef.
  5. Doesn’t make any fuss about me wanting to spend time with my friends.
  6. Enjoys nights sitting in front of the TV watching a well-made mini-series we both enjoy.
  7. Enjoys a mix of adventure and relaxing holidays with me. (Can go on occasional holiday with friends – both of us)
  8. Doesn’t fuss about birthday or Christmas presents, but buys me one when he finds something special or interesting.
  9. Has friends and family I get along with
  10. Gets along with my friends and family

(So there are two immovable and for me would appear in every list as I think it would be incredibly difficult to navigate a relationship without 9 and 10. Mind you, I’ll see where I’m at in another 10 years or so.)

(And… unsurprisingly, a key criterion for me would most definitely be that my partner doesn’t disturb my sleep – but I don’t rate it in the top 10. Possibly number 11…???)

Matching ‘what we want’ with ‘what we get’ is a moving target and a terrifically complex task to get right, given we can’t predict the future. Such an impediment to a successful life.

Working out what you NEED versus what you WANT is a herculean task, beyond most of us – especially when we are smitten with a boy who’s terribly wrong for you, but he looks just like Tom Cruise.

I have no clear solution to this dilemma. I do think however, that societies who rely on practices that have interventionist strategies, and don’t just use romantic love as the sole means of partnering, may have solution.

An example of this is matchmaking – a long-held tradition that essentially aims to pair two people for the purpose of marriage. With a third person making the decisions about ‘who is going to go out with who’ – our propensity to choose someone based on the ‘butterflies in the stomach’ method is removed, replaced by a process of matching criteria. How terribly sensible!

(And matchmaking is alive and thriving in Australia – check out this episode of Insight from 2015)

Introduction agencies use similar methods – and I guess they are just a more openly commercial form of matchmaking.


The thing is though… so many of us love the ‘butterflies in our stomach’ method to meet our true love. Romance is alive and well and helping thousands of people to make bad partner decisions every night of the week.

And should we always have to make the right decision? A few wrong choices along the way may be a good thing; a way of testing some our theories – reference again to my Tom Cruise criteria.

I do believe though that the messages we are bombarded with about romantic love being the gold standard need to change. Sure, it’s great to fall ‘head over heels’ and live ‘happily ever after’ – but those messages fail us by hiding the fine print of life somewhere in the back story.

I know practicality is rarely sexy, but with a little more reality and little less romance, maybe we can assess the merits of any relationship we think will be long term with more skills and insight. Rather than waiting until it’s too late, and we’re thinking “I wish someone had told me it might be like this”.

Are our chances of finding the ‘right’ partner greater when everything stacks up on paper? Or are we better leaving it to chance?

Maybe it’s a dilemma that’s never meant to be solved.


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