How do I know if the person I’m dating is the one?

A student sent me this question:

How do I know if the person I’m dating is the one?

To be honest, I don’t!

I don’t subscribe to the idea that there is the perfect one or a soul mate. These are very dangerous ideas because, every real concrete person will always fall short when compared to the perfection of the abstract ideal. The person you have might be beautiful, but there will always be someone more beautiful. The person you have might be inspiring, but there will always be someone more inspiring. (On a side note, this is the same problem whenever you ask yourself whether you are happy. You could be happy, but when you compare your concrete experience with the abstract and perfect ideal, your experience of happiness will appear to fall short.) So if we are unaware of this, we’d be forever chasing an impossible dream of the perfect partner.

I do have some minimum requirements: (1) Must have mutual affection and attraction; (2) Can click well and talk about anything like best friends; (3) Are actually the best of friends; (4) Can still love me when I am most unlovable; (5) Inspires/Encourages me to be a better version of myself; (6) Is willing to fight with you and for you.

If someone satisfies that criteria, I would resolve and commit my existence to that person.

Now, I’m not saying you should follow this set of requirements. It’s your life and your relationship. But I want to talk a bit more about (3) and (5).

On (3): From time to time, I hear people say, “You shouldn’t form romantic relationships with friends, that you should only date strangers outside your social circle. Friends are friends, and love is love.” And I have come across some people who do that to their spouses (they’re rarely happy). They confide in their best friends more than their spouse. I find that to be one of the worst advice for long-term relationships. Your partner is supposed to be someone whom you share your most intimate self – who you really are in your state of vulnerability, in good times and in bad. And that requires a great deal of trust and friendship. You can’t even get there in a romantic relationship if you don’t even have that trust to begin with.

On (5): I want to be clear that what I mean here is that the other person makes you want to improve yourself. The other shouldn’t try to change you or boss you around to become a better person like you are some personal pet project. That robs you of your autonomy as you improve as a person. You change not because you actually want to, but because you are forced to. And that creates the conditions for great resentment that will manifest itself eventually. What you want is someone who gives you the reason to fight hard to be a better version of yourself every day BECAUSE you know that it would make your partner happy and benefit him/her in the relationship.

I will end with one remark.

Life has a funny way of being unpredictable even if we think we are so sure about it. There’s always this worry that we might have chosen to devote our lives to the wrong person, or that the relationship doesn’t last. Even if we find someone who ticks all the right boxes for a long-lasting and stable relationship, we can never be too sure.

Does this mean that we don’t try?

My ex once asked me this at the start of our relationship. I thought about it for some time, and I answered: If we’re sure about being together now, then it’s worthwhile that we join each other on our adventures. We’ll make memories and we’ll learn and grow together. And if, in the future, we find that we have to part ways, we’ll just thank each other for being such a significant part of our life’s journey and for all the wonderful memories and experiences that shaped us to be who we have become. And that’s still pretty worthwhile.

We were together for 9 years. It sucks to part ways in the end, but we’re both very grateful to each other for all the experiences and memories that we’ve had with each other. And we’ve had no regrets about being together. (Just so you know, we’re still on cordial talking terms.)

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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