Sometimes people ask me which qualities should one seek in a potential partner. I thought that this question deserved to be answered in more detail so here I present a LONG answer.
I will put self-esteem in the first place, since self-esteem influences all other aspects of our lives. However, it is not easy to find a person with true, healthy self-esteem. Many forms of behavior considered to be expressions of (too much) self-esteem are actually just compensations for the lack of self-love: attention seeking, exhibitionism, arrogance, hunger for power and so on. Very often, our subconscious self-image is toxic and the conscious self-image more or less neutral. In my opinion not many of us have truly experienced how different our life would be if we felt healthy self-love. (For more information check out the article “What is Self-esteem?”)
Love vs. need
Many people feel flattered and pleased when they sense that their partner needs them badly, clings to them, and will suffer a lot if they should separate (doesn’t this sound like what we often consider to be romantic love?). However, those are indications that your partner loves you in a childish, needy way and not in an adult manner. They don’t see you as a unique human being, but as a substitute for an important person from their past. In this case their love does not truly belong to you. In this type of relationship you don’t have the freedom to be who you truly are. Your partner is bonded to you, dependent of you playing the role you were given, and expects you to be the kind of person they feel the need for. Every discrepancy from that idealized image creates fears, disrupts the atmosphere and causes accusations and conflicts.
For an emotionally healthy person, closeness with an emotionally mature partner who is not dependent of our love is a true compliment – but many people feel insecure in this kind of relationship because of the popular belief that love means clinging and dramatic, dependent reactions.
If you notice that you melt with tenderness, or feel increased security, even a kind of strength or superiority whenever you notice your partner expressing symptoms of low self-esteem: dependency, bonding, self-criticism, pessimism etc. – know that, to the same extent, they are incapable to feel mature love and respect for you, and that this will surely cause problems in some other areas of your relationship.
People who criticize themselves, don’t listen to their own needs, treat their emotions as not important, will tend to do the same to others in different circumstances, and that includes you. On the other hand, if somebody is inconsiderate to other people’s feelings and needs, shows coldness, criticism, aggression and irony, they will treat their own true being in the same way. It might not be obvious from outside… aggressiveness is a mask under which such people suppress self-hatred.
If you show pity and play the role of savior when your partner acts like a victim, you will not help them. This, however, doesn’t mean you should leave them, or that you should be rigid, coldly rational or critical in those moments. Adult love sometimes means compassionately, with tact and respect, confronting the person you love with reality and giving support in their efforts to become happy and independent.
This doesn’t mean that if you have high self-esteem you’ll be happy all the time and other people’s behavior won’t bother you at all. Sadness is a natural reaction to loss, and fear, longing, anger… are all natural emotions. (Check the article “Emotional Maturity” for the info about distinguishing healthy – adult emotions from childish ones). Being able to accept your emotions and to express them in an appropriate way, is a mark of true self-esteem. Same with trusting yourself enough to be able to open and relax within a relationship. This can be considered a healthy way to bond to another person.
On the other hand, the less you value yourself, the more powerless you feel and the more will you blame other people and outer circumstances for your emotions and overall happiness. As a result, you might criticize others, complain, avoid noticing and considering others’ feelings and needs, and might resort to “emotional blackmail”.
The second place on the list of desirable qualities goes to commitment to continuous self improvement. The reason why this quality is not on top of the list is the fact that low self-esteem hinders change and independent thinking, makes a person prone to suggestions, often dogmatic and more focused on formalities rather than on the true essence of personal growth. People who on a deep level don’t appreciate themselves will likely value an authority’s opinion rather than their own, and sabotage all changes that might lead to the increase of happiness. The quality of their partnership might be one of them. Therefore I believe self-esteem to be more important for a successful relationship.
What are we actually attracted to?
Self-esteem is a basis for optimism, and often for a healthy sense of humor, communication skills and many other qualities we expect from a good partner. Yet, even if we meet a person who possesses all those qualities – very often we won’t perceive them as a potential partner! We might appreciate such a person, but we might not feel romantically attracted to them (except maybe if they are unavailable). Romantic love tends to bond us to a person who triggers our unresolved emotional patterns and problems.
Many people who repeat the pattern of obviously unhealthy relationships have learned to associate dramatic and immature behavior with love, and thus find it attractive. In that case, they might feel bored in a relationship with a healthy person. Even if you are attracted to more mature relationships, you probably still carry some of your unhealthy images of love and are attracted to them, although this is harder to recognize since the patterns are subtle and not so obvious.
Is it easy and comfortable for you to feel intense love for yourself? Do you trust that other people can truly, deeply and consistently love you? Do you have experiences with people who you loved, but who were not able to accept or trust your love? If we do not love ourselves, we can’t truly feel other people’s love or believe in it.
I’d say that, when another person loves us, we do not “receive“ their love directly: our awareness of the other’s love amplifies and supports those parts of us that are healthy and full of love for ourselves. Only to the extent to which we are able to love and appreciate ourselves, will we be able to feel the fullness and depth of love that the other person feels for us.
In any case, we will feel attracted to the person whose emotional maturity – which is inseparable from self-esteem – is in line with our own. This helps us understand how important it is to work on our self-improvement “in advance”, rather than to hope that a relationship with another person will bring solutions to our problems. This is why it’s said “to find the person you want, first you have to become such a person”.