Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My former fiancee and I broke up four months ago, and I’ve been slowly starting to feel better, but I realized I don’t know how far I should go in overlooking the differences between me and a partner. I’m pretty good at compromising on most things, but I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a good thing for me to do. I keep thinking that since we love each other, things will work themselves out or at least be tolerable. And we WERE able to make things work for over five years — until we weren’t.
How do you know which things are OK and which things are not? For example, I tend to be defensive. My former partner and I were in couple’s counseling, and that was one of the things we worked on — how she could be aware of things that provoked me and how I could be less defensive even when provoked. The counseling was very helpful, but I’m still wondering if it’s possible to find someone whose personality would be a better fit with mine from the start.
First, I suggest individual counseling for the defensiveness. Find out why your default emotional response is to protect yourself, even/especially from supposed loved ones.
As for compromising dos and don’ts, the best thing you can do, always, is not “need” the relationship to last. This is hard — who doesn’t want to be loved? — but it’s really hard for people who have that fundamental self-doubt, who need the validation of others’ approval.
Having such a strong, core incentive to keep a relationship going, though, clouds a person’s judgment on what is and isn’t working in a relationship. It disposes a person to minimize or wish things away.
It’s also important to have a baseline understanding of what love can and can’t accomplish. In general, irritants only get more irritating with time, and nuisances get more annoying, and burdens get heavier, and divergences grow wider. Anytime you’re assessing whether something that bothers you is a real problem, think of now — i.e., when you’re fairly newly in love with someone — as the time when this thing will be at its most tolerable. Very few negative traits grow more appealing with time.
When you take great and simple pleasure in each other, when you communicate, and when you both handle your differences in a way that makes sense to you, then those differences will be less likely to become Issues.
It’s almost impossible for someone to define a good personality fit for anyone else, but this much I believe is true: You can accurately determine a good fit for you by paying attention to how hard you have to work to keep the peace. If you constantly have your guard up with someone, if you can’t be fully yourself, then you’re going to wear out any love you feel for the person, and likely descend into resentful silence or recurrent fighting.
So, don’t think just in terms of what you have in common with someone, but also in terms of how tiring it is for you, emotionally and physically, to reconcile what you don’t have in common. You want to be light on the second and heavy on the first.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at washingtonpost.com.